In deepest winter, when not much abounds except for skeletons of summer past, the attention turns to winter interest in the garden. I first fell in love with the magic of grasses all those years ago when I first tried Miscanthus species, then Stipa species and then finally I fell for the charms of Chionochloa rubra. Such was the impression it made on me that this New Zealand native still plays a key role in my garden almost twenty years after I first used it.
Chionochloa rubra (commonly called Red Tussock Grass) hails from the windswept hills of New Zealand and is a native species there. Growing in a variety of soils, both wet and dry, it is capable of reaching 1.2 metres with good living. It is extremely tolerant of wind and exposure and it mainly increases in its habitat by mass seeding, usually when the plant is a few years old. Because of its structure the plant rarely looks like it has dead foliage which is a major bonus for he gardener. The plant has the RHS AGM Award for several years now.
Like most good plants its unassuming nature is its strength. Looking good always is a big ask especially in this age of smaller gardens and less talent and time to mind them, Chionochloa rubra though is an all -star presence. Dull bronzed gold in colour, it adds a sophisticated touch to plantings, stands out in winter among gravel, complements white stemmed birches and makes a steady statement on corners and key focal points. Is there anything more beautiful than its fluid, hairlike stems, coloured dull gold and adorned with en-tremblant droplets of dew? Even better with a stiff breeze that animates the entire plant and makes it give a sense of poetry to even the most winter ravaged garden scene.
The big learning for me with this grass was its usability, particularly in pots. In my garden, for the past winter I have kept a specimen in a huge terracotta pot and allowed it to grace the path to the door. It has never looked so good. The height of the pot elevates it to a statement focal point. The breeze can catch it better and the dew can slowly descend each filament. Catching the western setting winter sun it looks magic.
All that said I am still taken aback at how little this plant is used. Sure, you see it in all the most interesting gardens but it is so worthy of a space in a garden I’m amazed that more people do not try it. It is an amazing plant for so many places; used with bamboos it can soften the severity of the stems and provide a beautiful contrast. I have used it very successfully with Tulips – particularly Tulipa Ballerina its burnt orange, lily shaped flower contrasting with the metallic foliage of the Chionochloa. Geum Totally Tangerine is a natural partner too and will fit in beautifully around the plant whilst putting up its orange flowers from April onwards.
When you first see this plant in a nursery it usually looks like an unlikely star, small plants can look sparse and gangly with little to show of its future promise. Smart gardeners will know that good things come to those who wait and within a year or two the ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan.
I think the big potential for this plant is in corporate and public plantings – used this way it can be an interesting companion to almost any scheme, thrive on neglect and add interest to the most dreary of roundabouts. Would you not like to see plants like this on your commute? now’s the time to sing its praises and get it better known and it will repay the attention a hundred fold.