28 January, 2010

Dozen for Diana 7 - Restios

Since Piet  Oudolf, gardeners have learnt to see swathes of various grasses as desirable. Things of beauty. No longer weeds=OUT. Reeds and grasses have morphed into something we seek out. To plant in our garden, and enjoy.

(This post was originally published on the 9th November last year)

If you have been following Dozen for Diana, so far I have chosen a focal point/informal hedge, a small tree, a variegated groundcover, some colourful groundcover daisies, a white arum and a white pelargonium - for my imaginary smallish, townhouse/courtyard garden. 

These plants are happy with the long hot summer and wet winter of a Mediterranean climate. Double points if they are from South Africa.
Third, got to have something special –
beautiful foliage, 
flowers to pick,
wildlife friendly,

Thatching reed

These are our indigenous reeds. If you see a  Cape_Dutch house, with its graceful gable and thatched roof – that thatch is Elegia tectorum. Or insignis. Tectorum means roof. (You may have met this plant as Chondropetalum, but all those species have recently been moved into Elegia.) The name Elegia is presumed to come from the Greek elegeia, a song of lamentation, and may be a reference to the rustling sound of the papery sheaths and bracts in the breeze. – from PlantZafrica .

An architectural focal plant, growing in a clump, arching out gracefully, and they get LARGE, so allow space. 1.5 metres high, and 2 or 3 metres across! As the stems grow the tips have a sharply pointed bract, so it is not suitable if you have toddlers running around. This, is a grownup’s plant.


When you drive across country, the proteas (especially if they are flowering) and drifts of restios in seeps and low damp patches – will tell you that you are back in fynbos. The ericas and bulbs usually require you to stop, and walk, if you want to see them.

My favourite is Elegia capensis, which produces its whorls of leaves, exactly like the Northern hemisphere Equisetum. A particularly unusual and beautiful way of growth! (Leonotis, Lion’s Ear is the only other plant like this, that I can think of.)

Because most species grow in damp places, in the garden, they will need some water when newly planted. And they are used to howling South-Easters, so they want space and fresh air, thank you.

Calopsis, bergbamboes on the left, with Chocolat, and dwarf papyrus on the right

The various species range in size from this (going to be huge) Bergbamboes  (translates as mountain bamboo. Common name, it is NOT related to bamboo!) The name Calopsis is derived from Kalos meaning beautiful and opsis meaning sight. The specific name paniculata means a tuft. - from PlantZafrica .

Choose your plant carefully, as you cannot prune it back. It is the size it is, basta. If you cut into the stems, they will die, and the plant will fade away. The thatchers harvest carefully, once a year, and taking stems that are already a full year old. Allowing the next year’s supply of  thatch to grow thru undisturbed by cutting above the new growth.

Olifantsriet at bridge

In the garden you simply tidy away the odd dead stem. Living within a protected environment in the centre of the clump are our Table Mountain cockroaches Aptera fusca. No, these are not your common kitchen cockroaches. They live outside, in the garden, on bits of dead plants. On a winter afternoon a few mothers get together, with all their little people, very much like a kindergarten – and they all soak up the sun. Not sure if the few I have seen here, came with us in pot plants from Camps Bay, where we lived on the mountain slope, 3 houses away from Table Mountain nature reserve. They will squeak at you, if you bother them! 

Photos and written 
by Diana of  Elephant's Eye 


  1. Love the restios and the cat, Diana, but, ahem, you can keep those roaches all to yourself, thanks...

  2. Ben - if I called them mountain beetles, would you give them a chance?

  3. I have seen restios at garden shows and believe that they are becoming increasingly popular over here. Not for me though I imagine that they would look great in wide open spaces :)

  4. Anna - yes, you need to start with space. Then they are striking architectural plants!

  5. Restios have been slowly making their way into the Southern California garden supply chain, and I'm quite thrilled to see more options. Grasses have a fine look to them, but the restios are quite different in my book, more tailored, more kempt-looking year-round. Still, we might see only 3-4 species in the fairly good nurseries, and I've been growing species not offered here from seed.

  6. James - how dedicated of you to tackle growing restios from seed. Do you use Kirstenbosch's Smoke primer?

  7. I love restios, though I do not grow any in my garden.
    They appear widely now in botanical gardens in this area, and in private gardens, too. I'm not sure if they're tricky to cultivate here. Perhaps some more than others.
    I'm blanking on the name, but a gorgeous species grew in San Francisco at the arboretum, and I often featured it in slide talks - the photo was stunning. It was very tall and had multi-colored stalks that looked like a colorful bamboo. It did not survive, and I still miss it each time I walk through the area where it once grew. I must delve into my files to look up the name, but perhaps you recognize the description?
    Wait, I've got it! Cannamois virgata...

  8. Bay Area, Alice? Your restio is in the plantZafrica website, which is always in my posts on SA plants, if they cover that one.

  9. EE
    I was not suggesting they were from the Bay Area, or native to it, if that's what you thought I was saying.

    Only that they are widely appreciated in this region, and appear more and more in gardens.
    I know Cannomois virgata is a Southern Hemisphere plant. One of my favorite books/resources... is The Looking Glass Garden by Peter Thompson.

  10. Bay Area - we have so many species of restio, that I went to look it up. You made it sound so beautiful, that I wanted to see it.

  11. A lovely and informative post, and a challenging question. I've struggled with it, and finally have to say my grass would be Miscanthus purpurescens because of its great fall colour and clumping tendencies. But this only if I could also have, in our wild pond, cattails, because they are where the redwinged blackbirds nest each spring, as well as providing food and shelter for other wildlife species. The photo of Chocolat with the plants is splendid--still life with Chocolat!

  12. Jodi - Just went to say hullo to your Miscanthus.


Photographs and Copyright

Photographs are from Diana Studer or Jurg Studer.
My Canon PowerShot A490

If I use your images or information, it will be clearly acknowledged with either a link to the website, or details of the book. If you use my images or words, I expect you to acknowledge them in turn.

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