Having laden this Plant of the Week feature of The Gardenist with plants about which the authors could all enthuse unequivocally, I thought it was time to include a plant about which I’m in two (or maybe three, or four) minds.
So here goes.
Poa labillardieri. You know it – it’s that grass that’s too often used in large masses on the edge of freeways, and is best remembered for its remarkable ability to catch and hold old chip packets and, with the build-up of ‘straw’, look 90% dead.
Makes you want to grow it, eh?
But then, a couple of years ago, we were being shown around some fabulous naturalistic planting in a German cemetery, and I spotted a grass of lovely bluish hue, surrounded in a fine mist of golden flowers, paired with mauve Aster x frikartii. There’s no way of getting even this far into the story without giving away the point. I asked the designer (the yet to be internationally acknowledged Harald Sauer) which grass it was. And by now, I don’t need to tell you.
This links with another encounter, 10 years earlier, at Chelsea Flower Show, when I asked the exhibitor of many ornamental grasses which he felt was the most under-rated, and, without hesitation, replied ‘Poa labillardieri’. I still wonder if I heard him correctly, though I asked him to confirm at the time.
As I write, it occurs to me that if one decided to grow almost any herbaceous perennial without any grooming or cut back throughout its life, and therefore not removing the annual accumulation of dead matter, it’d look as bad as a freeway-side Poa. So we probably shouldn’t think any less of it for that.
In its favour, Poa lab (as it’s familiarly called (I was going to say ‘affectionately called’, but I’m not sure that there’s a real lot of affection involved)) is an incredibly tough grass, largely indifferent to soil type. In many parts of Australia it will thrive without any supplementary water. It forms a dome of foliage to 60-70cm, and the flowers can hover beyond the foliage to a total of about a metre. The distinctness of the tussock form is an important part of its contribution, so it should be planted with sufficient spacing to achieve a pattern of repeated hummocks, rather than creating an undifferentiated blanket covering.
For me, the single most critical aspect of its integration into mixed planting is a recognition of its inherent modesty. Some grasses can stand proud amongst flamboyant perennials. Poa lab isn’t one of them. To my mind it looks best when mixed with other really modest plants of contrasting form – think Poa lab with other native strap-forms like Dianella, Lomandra, or non-natives like NZ flax, or alongside clipped domes of Westringia or Correa. Having said that, how I saw it managed OS makes me think that maybe Poa lab is capable of dancing on a somewhat more glamorous stage that I’ve ever provided for it.
I wrote a piece for the blog about Poa lab back in 2013 that led to a fabulous conversation about various readers’ ways of managing it, which you can access here, and then add your voice to the discussion below on this new thread. Or if you’ve got anything to say in its defence, or its condemnation, please add that below too.
I can’t help but think that one day I’m going to find the key to using, placing and managing Poa lab that makes me see it in a whole new light.