PLANT OF THE WEEK #82: Stipa gigantea

The best view of our back garden is from the new clothesline. 

This wasn’t intentional.

From the clothesline, the old metal shed barely encroaches on my peripheral vision, the green Colorbond fence runs off diagonally into the background, and the holly bush hides the water tank.

Nothing competes with the plants.

View from the new clothesline

The main source for my daydreaming here is Stipa gigantea, its long arching wands swaying gently in the breeze, its golden flowerheads glistering.

I planted four of them two years ago in the main beds on either side of a path.

The largest one stands, by coincidence, in the exact spot once occupied by a Hills Hoist. Stipa gigantea bears no resemblance to our old rotary clothesline, of course, except that at 1.8-ish metres, they’re about the same height.

Last year was the first time my Stipa gigantea flowered. The previous year, I had Verbena bonariensis in these beds to provide some height, but the Stipa gigantea have a more clearly defined presence. Up close, you can look them in the eye and run your fingers through the oat-like tassels. Yet, because they let you see through their stems and flowerheads, they complement their neighbours rather than dominate them.

I saw Stipa gigantea in all its glory for the first time in 2017 – a huge specimen stretching right out in Beth Chatto’s gravel garden. What a star! Since then, I’ve seen it over here numerous times, and begun to notice subtle variations.

Beth Chatto’s gravel garden

My plants came from three sources, and you can tell them apart. One was already quite large, and its stems are the most relaxed. Two of the others, bought from a nursery, are more upright and their flowers more delicate.

I’ve also seen Stipa gigantea with striped stems. Are these differences the result of them being grown from seed? Whatever the reason, they’re all so elegant. When in full bloom, they dance and delight, especially when shimmering in the afternoon light.

Over the past few weeks, new stems have been rising from the grassy domes of my Stipa gigantea, the old ones having been cut back in late winter (I resisted for as long as I could). Now they’re approaching the height that transforms how the area looks and feels.

As the days start to warm up here, those rising wands are casting their spell again.

I’m off to hang out the washing.

I may be some time.


Richard Padgett is bringing to life his design for his garden in the Macedon Ranges, an hour north-west of Melbourne. Follow his progress on Instagram: @richard_creates. If you’re in the Macedon Ranges, he also publishes a weekly email newsletter about local events.

Discussion

  1. Yes, I think it looks gorgeous too! Love easy grasses that soften the garden. Can someone name all the other plants in Beth Chatto’s gravel garden – it looks so pretty!

    1. I wish I could! Her book Drought-Tolerant Planting goes into a lot of detail about the gravel garden through the seasons and the plants within it. As well as the Stipa gigantea in this pic, I love how the purple heads of the Verbena bonariensis float high above everything at the front of the bed.

    2. Oh, I have the book ‘Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden’, bought about 20 years ago, I’ll have to revisit it. Perhaps I can find a photo of that spot, she identifies all her plantings.

    3. That’s the book, Melissa. I think the publisher had changed the title for the edition I have. I personally prefer the earlier title of yours.

  2. Thank you Richard, I agree it’s a beautiful grass, I love it because it flowers so early, also l it doesn’t seed itself so is never invasive. Mine has the upright stems and delicate airy flowers, not so fan like as yours. I’ve never seen a striped one, will keep an eye out!

  3. Great article, such a beautiful plant. I’m curious though why did Michael write in his intro to the plant of the week that sadly we won’t all be able to grow it as there isn’t a substitute? Is this as it suffers in drought?

    1. I guess I’d better step in with a reply on that. What I meant is that we won’t ALL be able to grow it, in that it’s not at all tolerant of summer humidity, such as that in Sydney, nor (as far as I know) anywhere that doesn’t get at least a little chilly in winter

  4. Stipa gigantea’s name has changed to Celtica gigantea……

  5. Love your article and your beautiful plantings Richard. Our Mediterranean patch in the Wimmera normally is fairly desiccated by Summer/Autumn and surrounded by acres of farming paddocks. I’ve previously worried that including grasses in the garden may simply look like I’d let things go and the paddocks of Veldt grass had won the endless battle.
    Desperately keen to replicate that ethereal feel that only tall wispy grasses impart in an experimental area (aren’t all our own gardens just test-plots?), tried out some Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ that performed surprisingly well, despite my visiting Mum suggesting I’d missed weeding in random spots.
    Early this Spring I mortgaged the house to plant 8 Stipa gigantea. Was rather hoping unrealistically for flowerheads this season but realise from your story that the reward will come with some patience.

  6. I first saw this stunning plant in David Glenn’s Lambley nursery about 10 years ago when it was described as hard to propagate and therefore in short supply. Luckily this has not been the case for me on red volcanic soil SE of Ballarat. Self seeds regularly, though not prolifically enough to be a problem, into a scoria mulch surrounding the initial 6 plants. Needs no water or cutting back apart from deadheading when finally looking tatty, by which time the miscanthus are up and away. Have also propagated very successfully by pulling chunks out of the centre of the plant at a point in the year when this is easy to do (was it autumn?) and just sticking them in the ground where the tiny roots showing at the base take hold. Must now have about 40 plants but sadly no space for more. Flowers cast beautiful shadows on a rammed earth wall in the morning light. Looking at their very best this week.

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