Stipa gigantea

Stipa gigantea towering against the sky

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.

I like the combination of Stipa gigantea with the ox-eye daisy

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.

I also like the stipa with the dark foliaged phormium coming into flower

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.

Fluffy mounds of Stipa tenuissima shining in the light with yellow Phlomis russeliana and Iris sibirica ‘Blue Moon’
Plenty of stipa flowers to share with the sparrows this year. Mark says it is the pollen they are after.

16 thoughts on “Stipa gigantea

  1. Susan Oliver

    Great to hear that the stipa gigantea is performing so much better in its second year – I will persevere – the sparrows have certainly been loving the first year ones that we obtained from you earlier this year (though interestingly they seem to have missed the odd one). Yours certainly looked very beautiful when I saw them at festival time last week.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It may just be that we have so many more flower heads this year that there are enough to share with the sparrows. I doubt that the sparrows have reduced in number of found a more desirable food source.

  2. Ann Bell

    I thoroughly enjoy your weekly newsletters. Just one question: why not plant the native “grass” Gahnia & thereby provide food for the rare Forest Ringlet butterfly? It has beautiful seed heads too (rather than Stipa.?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It is cutty grass. I don’t want cutty grass in a garden situation where I am grooming and managing plants. We have it growing naturally down in the meadow. I am using a mix of native and exotic grasses – Anemanthele lessoniana, Austrodera fulvida, Chionochloa rubra and flavicans and a native reed as well as miscanthus and stipa. We like to mix and match our natives with exotics.

  3. Ann Bell

    Thank you , yes, Gahnia is sharp! Our garden is so much smaller than yours and being keen on conservation in general, we have to make such choices here. I also hope that people are aware of the fertile Stipa species as opposed to the sterile one, but sadly, botany is not a compulsory subject…

  4. Ross palmer

    Re the Stipa tenuissima, its a serious pest in the dry eastern hills of Marlborough to the point they have a Nassella board to try and coordinate its removal over multiple decades! It’s common name is needle grass and as such causes sheep in the area a great deal of distress. I suspect any South Island farmers visiting your garden may well have been horrified!
    Taranaki being so much more fertile and moist probably not such an issue.

    Stipa gigantea in Marlborough behaves itself without a single volunteer to date (3 seasons so far), fingers crossed it remains that way as like you I find it incredibly beautiful.

    Pennisetum villsosum, whilst not mentioned in your piece is beginning to mildly seed about in my wellington garden which has me a little worried…….

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I see it is a different species that is the issue in Marlborough – Nasella neesiana. It looks very different from the photos. But I put a caveat on tenuissima because I am aware it is seen as a problem in some situations. I lost the only pennisetum I was given but I think that often comes with a warning, too. The miscanthus is seeding here but as that is also recommended as a stock food crop so I guess it would not be such a problem if it escaped.

      1. Ross Palmer

        Just did a little more research and it would seem there are three species of Nasella which are considered invasive, N. trichotoma, N. neesiana and N. teniuissima.

        First two are a problem in the South Island however teniuissima is much more of an issue in the north. I see it’s a notifiable weed in the Waikato where it’s now a problem in some areas and is a banned plant for sale in Aotearoa period.
        Yeah, I reckon it would be wiser to watch that one carefully!

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        We won’t grow anything that is banned entirely. Mark had a few pangs about not being able to have the giant gunnera. We remove anything that we think will cause a problem downstream (took out the wachendorfia and flag iris we had by the stream) and we take responsibility for potential weeds like seedling campanulata cherries. We don’t share plants that we think may be problematic but we don’t get rid of them unless it appears they are a big issue. So far, the seeding of tenuissima has only been minor at the most and it is not going to escape our property.

      3. Ross palmer

        Hi Abby, sorry to prick that bubble however all Nassella species are listed on the National Pest Plant Accord produced by MPI update version February 2020. A quick google will confirm that is the case. Any plant on that list is illegal to propagate or distributed in Aotearoa and I suspect growing such plants is banned although that was less clear on my cursory read through.

        I completely agree that under your culture and careful tutelage it is very unlikely to escape into the surrounding landscape and I get why you are growing this plant, it’s incredibly beautiful! I’ve grown this plant in the UK and it’s softness is hard to beat.

        I figure it’s better to know the real situation rather than be caught by surprise! By all means keep growing this plant knowingly.


      4. Abbie Jury Post author

        No, there is a difference. Plants like the erigeron daisy are banned from commercial production and distribution. Others are banned totally, but generally, that is district by district as determined by regional councils. Such as gunnera in Taranaki. And pampas grass was totally banned. As far as I know, S tenuissima is banned from commercial production and distribution but it is not illegal to have it in a private garden.

  5. Tim Dutton

    Totally agree with your list of desirable plants that can be seen in Europe, but are hard to come by in New Zealand. We love the look of the Stipa gigantea and were impressed with how it looked in the Court Garden when we visited. We’ve been collecting Thalictrum as we find them: T. rochebrunianum is a fabulous plant that we bought 3 years ago and gets to 2.5 metres tall in our garden, but the place we bought it from no longer lists it I’m afraid. We’d love to know how to propagate it and guess it is by division. Veronicastrum and Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ are on our want list, along with Camassias, which ought to do well for us given how damp our soil is.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We have blue camassias here that have been pleasing us for many years now. Mark and I are going to have a look at the thalictrum and see if it can be divided or whether it needs to be done by cutting. Parva listed veronicastrum this year but it sold out quickly. I could not recommend doing it from seed!

      1. Robin Dowie

        I collected the seed of my thalictrum and have grown a dozen new plants. The seed are small but were not difficult to grow.

  6. Paddy Tobin

    We struggle with stipa here in south east Ireland but have the consolation that those purple alliums are practically weeds here, while Veronicastrum thrive and thalictrum do well. The stipa are growing beautifully for you and look simply fabulous. I’m jealous!

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