Sandy's Garden ... Stipa Tenuissima or Nassella Tenuissima?

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The arrival, courtesy of Royal Mail, of the Spring 2022 edition of an extensive plant catalogue cast my mind back to the days of my childhood.

In those increasingly dim and distant days in Perth, the words ‘plant catalogue’ were synonymous with the words ‘Alexander & Brown’ and referred to the biennial edition of that firm’s illustrated directory of all things horticultural.

Well, the firm’s premises were actually at 61-71 South Methven Street, in a splendid retail facility which was accessible only to the most daring youngsters.

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Children were met with a welcome similar to that which was accorded to a dog in the butcher’s shop or a cat in the fishmonger’s: but those who risked venturing within might be fortunate enough to acquire a treasured copy of the firm’s no doubt expensive-to-produce, illustrated catalogue.

Falkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy SimpsonFalkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy Simpson
Falkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy Simpson

The pages of the catalogue which was posted to me recently are smaller in size but more numerous in quantity; they are printed on thinner paper; every page carries illustrations in full colour; and, just like Alexander & Brown’s catalogues these many years ago, they reward frequent scrutiny even if they don’t necessarily generate a flood of orders.

And one picture on the front cover caught my eye for the most unexpected reason; at first glance I thought, “It’s Boris Johnson!” Of course, it isn’t a photograph of our Prime Minister; it’s an illustration of one variety of a plant with the Sunday name of Stipa tenuissima, commonly known as Mexican Feather Grass, the illustrated variety being ‘Ponytails.’

The wild, straggly manner in which it displays itself, reminiscent of Boris’s usual hair style, prompted me to find out a bit more about this particular variety. I learn that Stipa is a genus of around 300 large perennial grasses known as feather grass, needle grass, and spear grass.

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Examples of the Stipa family formed a significant part of the native grass plant species found in the prairies, although the value of growing edible seed-producing grasses imported from Europe has resulted in a big reduction in its occurrence there nowadays. Its family name … Stipa … is the Latin word for ‘tow’ or ‘oakum’; and the specific name for the variety illustrated in the catalogue … tenuissima … means ‘very slender,’ explaining its common name of feather grass.

A number of members of the family are grown as ornamental grasses in city and courtyard gardens, in cottage and informal gardens, in flower borders and beds and as low maintenance decorative plants. They do best in medium to light, moderately fertile soil in full sun; and, as you might expect of a plant suitable for low maintenance areas, they are generally resistant to most plant pests and diseases. Indeed, virtually the only maintenance they appreciate is having their leaves cut back, preferably in the spring after these have died off, to encourage new growth.

As happens in the botanical world, Mexican Feather Grass was recently reclassified as belonging to the Nassella family rather than the Stipas: but it was still called a Stipa when it won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. Stipa or Nassella – your call.

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