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…..
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.
There 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.Although 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.
Pampas 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.
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.
Sometimes 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 One (giant anteater) by Fernando Flores https://www.flickr.com/photos/ferjflores/9864451663
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