PLANT OF THE WEEK #13: Miscanthus transmorrisonensis

Yep, it’s a bit of a mouthful of a name, but it’s very satisfying (and invariably impressive) to say once you’ve nailed it.

In singing the praises of Miscanthus transmorrisonensis, it’s necessary to talk miscanthuses in general, and then the characteristics of this particular species.

The last time I ever saw Christopher Lloyd was in 2004, and we were both in full, formal back tie, dressed up for the opera at Glyndebourne.  Amongst the party was Romke van de Kaa, head gardener at Great Dixter back in the 70’s (and who, having been mentioned in a few of Christo’s books, was a total legend in my eyes).  We were all sitting around in the Yeoman’s Hall over drinks, and in the middle of my own conversation, I overheard Christo and Romke’s nearby, in which one was saying ‘…too many Miscanthus.  Such an over-rated perennial’ followed up by a ‘totally overrated’ from the other.  In such glorified company, it really takes some guts to speak your (contrary) mind – more guts than I’ve usually got – but I couldn’t let that pass.  I flipped from my conversation to theirs, with a ‘Nah, I can’t let you get away with that.  They’re brilliant perennials,  They may be over-used and they may be badly used, but they’re amazing from the time they emerge in spring, stunning before they flower, fabulous in flower, wonderful in autumn colour, and brilliant over winter’ (actually, what I said probably wasn’t that fluent).  Now Christopher Lloyd could be fabulously – almost theatrically – dismissive of dissenting opinion, whether his own thoughts were well-discerned or prejudicial (he held a range of both), but at other times he could be quite persuadable. This, alas, was an example of the former, and I expect that the only one of the party I managed to convince was me.  

And I certainly am convinced.

Miscanthuses are amazing, dramatic grasses that imbue a garden with great seasonal dynamism.  Their mounds of ever-moving foliage achieve that rare combination of fine linear texture presented in a legible ‘dome’.  The late-summer flowers take the plant to a whole new place hovering above the foliage, and in a range of colours from silvers and golds through to pinks and deep, metallic reds.  

One thing miscanthuses don’t ‘do’ well is drought.  They’ll likely survive drought, but their slow accumulation of bulk, culminating in their flowering, which otherwise proceeds continuously throughout the warmer months, will be curtailed by the onset of excessive summer dry.  This also means that the later any particular variety comes into bloom, the more it’s likely to have its flowering interrupted by summer dry.

It was some years after that memorable Glyndebourne night that M. transmorrisonensis came on the scene, here in Australia, introduced (from memory) by David Glenn, who advertised it as one of his favourites for its nearly evergreen foliage, and early flowering.

Miscanthus transmorrisonensis (at the back) presenting its notably silver domes amongst other perennials

Its most memorable characteristics must surely be its vast dome of semi-pendulous silver-straw flowerheads.  The effect is fountain-like, with all the stems radiating out, in vase-form, terminating with elegantly drooping flowerheads at up to 2.1m tall.  The pendant form of the flower results in this species responding to breezes with greater animation than others, and its light-reflecting – at times almost crystalline – flowerheads make the light around them dance along. The foliage is nice enough, but not notable amongst other species and forms.  It is, as advertised, semi-evergreen.  This isn’t any advantage, to my mind.  I’d rather that it be entirely deciduous, and colour nicely in the descent into autumn.  Instead, it just yellows off slightly, and is likely to still be carrying quite a lot of green when you cut it back – virtually to the ground – in late winter (which you really must do with all Miscanthus, to avoid the slow accumulation of dead matter).

Miscanthus transmorrisonensis is also one of the earliest of all miscanthuses to flower each season.  I’m never in any great hurry for them to flower, as the foliage is itself so lovely, but the earliness of the flowering does mean that, in my summer-dry climate at least, the extension growth necessary for flowering is more likely to occur while there’s still a bit of moisture left in the soil, so it’s flowering is less likely to be impeded by late summer dry than that of later flowering forms. I don’t water any of my Miscanthus – I don’t have any water to give them – and M. transmorrisonensis is the one species that performs, consistently, each and every year

Discussion

  1. I just wrote about miscanthus the other day! My transmorrisonensis is huge and so beautiful as the sun rises behind it each morning and the plumes are backlit. You are spot on about it flowering early – a great advantage I think. And like you I cut it to the ground each winter – I started off using a breadknife but the hedge trimmer is much more effective and quicker!

    1. A breadknife? Oh, like a serrated knife? my mind initially went to a bread and butter knife. I have clients with hundreds of them, who have duct-taped hedge trimmers to a trolley, so they just wheel the trolley amongst the plants, and control it all from a standing position.

    2. A hedge trimmer duct-taped to a trolley? That. Sounds. Highly. Dangerous. And the OH&S part of me just shivered! Wouldn’t a brushcutter with a blade be better? Tying the top up also helps clearing away more easily I’ve found!

  2. One of the most stunning of the Miscanthus that always gained a lot of comments in my last garden. It can become huge and also spread so it does need plenty of room. I cut it back with battery operated hedge cutters and once my husband even cut it back with a chainsaw!

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