When we made our treks across the world to look at summer gardens, there were three plants that were standout performers we were keen to try here – Stipa gigantea, thalictrum and veronicastrum. Oh, and the giant blue-purple alliums but we are not going to pay the big dollars per bulb they command here. The reason they are so common in English and European gardens is because they can buy the bulbs very cheaply from Dutch growers.
We have a pink thalictrum that is doing fairly well, though it has only achieved waist-high altitude and does not look as though it is going to get much beyond that. The sole veronicastrum – the only success after three attempts with the finest seed Mark has had to deal with (he had to get the magnifying glass out to check that he wasn’t just sowing dust) – is growing slowly and seems to be a plant for the long haul rather than a quick result. But the Stipa gigantea….
A friend in Christchurch sent me a few divisions. I have no idea how long it has been in NZ or who brought it in but it is not widely available commercially. That may just be a matter of time and demand. The few divisions grew, and grew and grew until we had many. I started with them in the perennial borders but after the first two years, realised they were going to be too large there so moved them into the new Court Garden where the focus is on big grasses. I knew I was overplanting them for quick effect 18 months ago so I removed over half of them last autumn to give the remaining plants space to stand alone. Each plant needs well over a metre of area.
The foliage is blueish-green in colour and evergreen, forming a soft fountaining mound about knee-high. But the long-lived, towering, golden flower spikes are the reason to grow it and give it the common name of ‘golden oats’. Last year was something of a disappointment because the sparrows stripped the flowers. Apparently, we can out-sparrow the Brits who introduced that little bird to this country. If we were not going to get the flowers, I wasn’t sure I would persist with the plants.
What a difference a year makes. This season, they are magnificent – a major feature in the new Court Garden. It remains to be seen how long they hold with our bird population but I can live with that because they make a big visual statement in late spring before the miscanthus flower. The ethereal golden heads towering above are so light, they appear to dance against the sky.
As far as we can make out, Stipa gigantea (syn Celtica gigantea) is sterile here, which is helpful. We should be able to confirm this later this season. It is also evergreen. A member of the poa family of grasses, it comes from southern Europe. Given its vigorous growth, it is a good thing it is shallow rooted so easy to lift and divide, often falling apart into divisions in the process. A visitor to the garden told me she was trying to buy one but there was a waiting list and each plant was priced at $40 which made me gulp. I briefly caught myself thinking that I could have easily potted up 40 of them sold them at $20 each during our recent garden festival. But we are over selling plants; we do not want to go back there again.
If you really want to have it in your garden, you could contact Janica at Woodleigh Nursery. I see they are saying sold out at this stage but she tells me she has more which will be ready in autumn. She doesn’t price them at $40 either. You only need one plant and a bit of patience. Within two years, you will have all you need. Just give it plenty of space to star.
The other stipa we grow is Stipa tenuissima (syn Nassella tenuissima) which is very lovely and fluffy but comes with a warning. It seeds down so is on the Weedbusters list though not banned, as far as I know. Avoid it if you are anywhere near native bush or indeed farmland. We don’t need more weed pests invading pastoral land. We are keeping it because it is not a problem in a controlled garden situation and does not seed so badly that we have found it to be a pest.