Wednesday Weed – Pampas Grass

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..


Pampas grass (Cortaderia sp.)

Dear Readers, back in the 1980’s, when I was living in Chadwell Heath on the eastern fringes of Greater London, everyone had pampas grass in their gardens, including me. It makes such a statement, with its great fluffy seed heads and its towering height – the one in my back garden was over ten feet tall. But after a few years, I decided that the plant was rather too reminiscent of Abigail’s Party and Black Forest Gateau ( I know, gentle readers, but I was young) and so I decided to replace it with something more trendy. Well. Let me tell you that the roots of a clump of pampas grass would daunt the Incredible Hulk, let alone a young woman without power tools. The blades of the grass are sharp enough to draw blood ( in fact the name Cortaderia means ‘to cut’ ). No amount of spadework or getting down to business with the secateurs would make the slightest bit of difference. And, in the end, I gave up with the job half done. Next year I swear the plant had grown to 150% of its original size. I refused to take it personally, but my battle was over. If only I had known that, according to the DEFRA website, cattle will graze on pampas grass – I could have rescued a Jersey cow, an animal that I have always admired. At any rate, I grew to love my particular plant because, during the following spring, I noticed the goldfinches tearing great clumps from the grass and flying off with it to line their nests.

img_9168There are 25 different species of pampas grass (all from southern South America, as the name suggests) and hundreds of cultivated varieties. This one, spotted in one of the front gardens on the way to Cherry Tree Wood, is rather beautiful, especially in the low sun and with a breeze shaking through those delicate brush-like seedheads. Each plant can produce over a million seeds during its lifetime, and so it is considered to be an invasive pest in some more hospitable parts of the world, such as California and Hawai’i. In New Zealand and South Africa the plant is actually banned, for fear that it would out compete some of the endemic species.img_9175Although I knew that there was a touch of anti-suburban snobbery about having pampas grass in your garden, I had no idea that, according to urban legend, if you have the plant in your front garden it means that you are a swinger. Apparently the journalist Mariella Frostrup was ‘inundated with unwanted inquiries’ after she planted some outside her Notting HIll home. According to a 2012 article in the Telegraph she is ‘desperately trying to get rid of the plants’. Well, good luck with that, Mariella.  Judging by the streets around here, either the good folk of East Finchley have never heard of such a signification, or half of the town must be having a rather more varied sex life than I ever imagined.

img_9176Pampas grass is gynodioecious: this magnificent word means that there are separate female and bisexual plants. Most of those grown are female plants, because these are the ones with the magnificent plumes, and as there are not many hermaphrodite plants about, the seeds are not fertilised. Just recently, however, according to the Non-Native Species Secretariat, seedlings have begun to appear, because imported seed contains both female and bisexual plants, and so fertilisation is possible. When one takes into account the size and vigour of a full-grown pampas grass plant, it’s no wonder that people in the UK are getting nervous. In my ‘Field Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in Britain’ by Olaf Boor, Max Wade and Helen Roy, it mentions that  pampas grass is ‘a suitable habitat for vermin, has sharp leaves and is highly flammable’. Just as well that I didn’t take a blow torch to mine.

On the Non-Native Species Secretariat website, it also mentions that pampas grass can be used to prevent soil erosion and to act as a windbreak. I imagine that in South America there is a giant anteater lurking behind every stand of pampas grass, and a jolly good thing too.

By Fernando Flores

A splendid Giant Anteater, though sadly no pampas grass (Photo One, credit below)

Apparently, carrying a bag made out of the stems of pampas grass is said to bring luck in Brazil, and this presumably means that the plant was used for making many household objects. It can also be used to make a yellow paper if the leaves are soaked in water for 24 hours and then cooked with lye and beaten in a blender.

img_9174Sometimes with a plant, one meets one’s match. Your nemesis might be in a particularly vigorous climber (like bindweed), it might be in a determined scrambler (like bramble) or it might be in a non-native goliath like pampas grass. But when I come to think of it, each of these plants has features that are delightful. The white, satiny flowers of the bindweed remind me of the skirts of a ballerina as they unfurl. The flowers of the bramble are manna for bees, and the berries are manna for everyone later in the year. And when I saw the plumes of the pampas grass dancing and bowing in the wind at Christmas, the low sun illuminating every tufted seed, it made me very glad to have been on that spot at that time. It stopped me in my tracks, and filled me with wonder. And that’s a very fine thing for any plant to do.

Photo Credits

Photo One (giant anteater) by Fernando Flores

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.


10 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Pampas Grass

  1. Ann

    Habitat for vermin … well, when we had a stand of pampas grass, inherited from the previous owners, hedgehogs lived under it for several years. They left and we got rid of the pampas grass, which I don’t regret but do miss the snuffling and coughing of the hedgehogs.

  2. Katya

    Your funny observations regards “the 80s” made me think it’s one of those decades, like “the 60s”, that as soon as you think has finally been laid to rest, pops up more vigorously than ever. An apt lead-in to the woes (or admirable tenacity) of pampas grass.

    1. Bug Woman

      Indeed! It’s like when the fashions of one’s childhood are reinvented and become trendy again. I await the return of ‘hot pants’ and ‘Oxford Bags (big tweed trousers with turn ups) with some trepidation. Though I wouldn’t mind if there was a resurgence of Black Forest Gateau, I must say :-).

  3. Toffeeapple

    We recently spent some time on the west coast of Scotland (Argyll) and were struck by how many Pampas Grass plants we could spot. I am now wondering if the whole west coast is populated by swingers?!

    1. Bug Woman

      That’s very interesting, Toffeeapple. According to my book, pampas grass has mostly colonised the West Country, but I guess the west of Scotland has similar wet, mild weather. Were these in gardens, or ‘wild’ I wonder?

      Everyone I speak to knows about the pampas grass/swingers thing, but I didn’t. I feel something of an innocent :-).

      1. Toffeeapple

        I was unaware of the swingers thing, too. Not something that falls within my understanding.

        We first noticed them in the wild, simply randomly planted on the side of a mountain then more were noticed in gardens. Strange that we have never noticed them on all our other sojourns there.

  4. rosni3

    Well I certainly didn’t know that pampas grass on the front garden (not the back? suppose it wouldn’t be seen) equalled swingers live here, but I do now, along with lots of interesting things I’ve leaned from today’s amusing blog. Happy New Year and keep up the good work.

  5. Andrea Stephenson

    I’m going to keep an eye out for pampas grass around town now to see where the swingers live 🙂 It’s one of those plants that did grow so familiar at a particular time that it seems ‘dated’, if a plant can be ‘dated’. We do have it in one of our local parks – it’s a park that has been landscaped with gravel and wooden beams reminiscent of staithes, a kind of ‘seaside’ feel, and it does suit the environment there and look quite beautiful when you get past the cliché of it.

  6. Pingback: Bugwoman’s Third Annual Report | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

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