Elegia capenis

Elegia capensis in the new Court Garden

I lost count of the number of times we were asked about Elegia capensis during our recent open days. I have used it extensively with the grasses in the new Court Garden and it is looking rather splendid.

Its common name is the horsetail restio and the entire restionaceae plant family hails from South Africa. There are plenty of them but E. capensis  is the most common in ornamental gardens. It is not too fussy on conditions as long as it never dries out entirely and is not subjected to very cold winters.

Most visitors described it as looking like a bamboo but with feathery growth, which is apt. The new shoots come up in spring like narrow bamboo shoots, first developing brownish sheaths at points up the stem before growing the fine foliage in tiers. The stems last about three years before dying off.

When you look at the seed head, it is just as well that seed is not viable here

Our plants have never set viable seed. Whether that is because they are all one clone and they need other clones to set seed or whether it is the lack of smoke from bushfires, we are not sure. They may even be fully dioecious – needing both male and female plants to set viable seed. These are plants that have evolved to deal with frequent fires (they sprout afresh from underground rhizomes). PlantzAfrica says: “The seeds react well to treatment with smoke or with the ‘Instant Smoke Plus’ seed primer. Without this treatment the germination rate is poor.” I have never even heard of Instant Smoke Plus before.

We used to produce a few to sell in the nursery but the death rate in production was high. I have only just discovered why. We assumed that they would be similar to other plants like hostas and rodgersias that grow from rhizomes. In other words, we would lift the plants in winter, separate the rhizomes and repot them ready for spring growth. Then I read somewhere that they should be divided in February – late summer – so we tried that and it was not particularly successful either. What I have since discovered is that their roots are very sensitive, making the plants difficult to propagate by division. They are evergreen and not overly hardy so they are in growth all the time, unlike plants like the aforementioned hostas which have a dormant period. Commercially, they are more commonly raised from seed.

Where we have been successful in dividing this elegia, it has not been by taking apart the rhizomes but by cutting off large chunks of the original plant and putting the entire chunk into the new location. When I say cutting off large chunks, this requires a strong person, a very sharp spade and sometimes an axe, to take off blocks that are about 20 cm across which need to be replanted straight away. Brute strength, not high-level skill.

I see BBC Gardeners’ World describe this plant as invasive, which I think is wrong. It doesn’t seed readily – or at all here. Nor does it run below the soil surface so it is not invading. It is, however, strong growing and can make a large clump in the right conditions and that large clump is not easy to reduce or eliminate because of the solid nature of the rhizomes.

The maceaya is the poppy foliage amongst the elegia

What is setting out to be genuinely invasive is the Macleaya cordata, commonly known as the Plume Poppy which is interplanted with the elegia. We have it in a shade garden where it certainly ‘ran’ below the soil surface but not in a particularly problematic manner. In full sun in the Court Garden, it is not so much running as sprinting – in every direction including into the pristine new paths. Attractive it may be, but it is a worry. I may just have to leave it in the shade garden and find a less determined plant option for the sunny, grass garden.

Terry’s restio, as we refer to it here.

We have another restio that I picked up from Terry Hatch at Joy Plants in Drury but I am not sure where – or if – I kept its species name. It is not as vigorous as the elegia so better suited to the perennial borders where I have it planted but lacks the immediate visual charm of the deep green colour and tiers of feathery foliage up the stem. There is no such thing as a perfect plant for all situations.

18 thoughts on “Elegia capenis

  1. jaspersdoggyworld

    Talking of interesting plants in your garden. In the meadow garden there was a tree with red trunk/bark. Is is a Largerstroemia tree? If not what is is it. It was of interest to members of our garden club. Thanks.

  2. Don Auchinvole

    I was very interested in your article on Elagia capenis as I have often admired it in other peoples garden but having gardened in England and had a garden with Equisetum hyemale (also commonly called Horsetail) which was impossible to get rid of have been very wary of growing it myself. the roots of Equisetum hyemale have been traced over 40mt in a quarry and as it’s seeds are spores it drifts with the wind. I found the only way to grow vegetables was to lay thick platic under the growing boxes and use imported soil in the boxes. These I managed to keep free of the weed for 5 years though the parent plants would seek out the sunlight round the edges and I would have to constanly cut them back.at ground level. This may have been what they were referring to in the Gardeners World program as Elegia capenis was showcased often at Chelsea Flower Show in the 90s when I was over there.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      No, the reference by Gardeners’ World was specifically to Elegia capensis https://www.gardenersworld.com/plants/elegia-capensis/. I see it is too tender for most of the UK though sometimes grown outside in Cornwall and Devon. I know what you mean about the equisetum. We had a most attractive one which Mark said not to release in the garden so I put it in a large pot and sank the pot in the rockery. When it broke the pot after a couple of years and made a bid for freedom, I took this as a sign and eradicated it. I don’t envy you trying to garden with it established over a wide area.

  3. Judi

    Hi Abbie, I had a customer come into the garden centre where I work, in Tauranga, with a picture he had taken while visiting your gardens. I had to rattle the brain a little before finally identifying Elegia capenis. Thank you for your blog.

  4. Paddy Tobin

    The restios have always been plants of the milder areas of Ireland and just a little tender for our area. They always catch the eye in a garden, very attractive with a distinctive habit. You are growing them beautifully.

      1. Paddy Tobin

        Restrictions will be eased in this coming week but because the government are mindful of keeping the population “sweet” – as there is demand for more freedom in the approach to Christmas though the medical advice is that restrictions need to continue. There will be a big rise in cases following this easing. We will continue to exercise caution, not mixing unless absolutely necessary. We have not met family for ages and are unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future. Grocery shopping is online etc etc. We garden whenever weather allows and walk as often as possible and, to be pefectly honest, are keeping very well indeed. Many thanks for thinking of us!

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        Yes, there has been some comment here about your government thinking that Covid will declare a four day amnesty over Christmas, just to please the populace! Good to hear that you are staying safe and well, albeit within some tight, self-managed restrictions.
        Alas, we can not see our children and grandchild either, because they are all in Australia, but it seems churlish to complain when most people are in a much worse situation than we are!

      3. Paddy Tobin

        The government here are planning an amnesty – presuming on Covid’s cooperation – from December 23rd to January 2nd. England is having the four day amnesty – but then their daily numbers are horrific. England has had 1.39 million cases and 50,998 deaths to date. (Ireland: 72,241cases and 2,052 deaths to date) That’s just England, not counting Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and, of statistical significance, the UK only counts a death as a Covid-related death if it occurs within 20 days of diagnosis! I am in Ireland, the Irish Republic, where we had 299 cases yesterday, Sunday,
        There are repeated reports of groups breaking the guidelines and, I think, the relaxation around Christmas is a recognition that there could be widespread flouting of the guidelines and that it would be very, very difficult to bring people back into compliance to deal with the inevitable surge in cases following the Christmas period. A case of giving generously what you cannot refuse – but, of course, some people will pay the price for this freedom through illness or death.

      4. Abbie Jury Post author

        Melbourne has beaten Covid by a long second lockdown, unpopular though it was. From over 700 community cases a day to none for more than three weeks. Interestingly, Australia appears to have quietly switched to the NZ model of going for elimination rather than just *managing* it. But that isn’t really an option for Ireland unless you close your northern border – and that is more fraught than closing most borders.
        I did not realise that England only counted deaths within 20 days of diagnosis though I recall that many were not tested in the early days so not recorded as Covid. The thing is that it may make the figures look slightly better at the time but statistically, the number of excess deaths calculated over time will reveal a more accurate figure. Interestingly, our general death rate actually dropped this winter because the seasonal flu was not widespread at all (closed borders and some physical distancing) and, contrary to expectations, suicide rates dropped over lockdown.

      5. Abbie Jury Post author

        As my son pointed out, had the whole world locked down for a few weeks at the same time, we could have eradicated it entirely! Which would have been much cheaper than the protracted problems now.

      6. Paddy Tobin

        The shops have reopened today – big reports on the lunchtime news – and also a report from a survey done by our national statistics office which reports that 20% of people responded that they would not abide by travel restrictions, were they imposed, at Christmas and would break guidelines to be with friends and families at Christmas. So, it would seem the government acted with this in mind – being better to give graciously what they could not refuse. On the other hand, I’m sure there is a very large section of the population which will continue to follow the spirit of the guidelines even though they are now relaxed.

  5. Michelle

    Thanks for sharing this Abby, I have just planted E capensis, so I enjoyed reading your experience for propagation.

  6. Tim Dutton

    I agree the Elegia isn’t invasive in our climate. The fact that it seems to spread forever doesn’t make it invasive, as it does so very slowly. Our biggest one is now 20 years old and the clump of stems is now about 2 metres in diameter. A chunk we cut off it and replanted 15 years ago is a little over 1.5m diameter. Both are in permanently damp and heavy soil, one at the edge of a stream and the other at the edge of a pond. Maybe they grow faster and bigger in such conditions, but 10 cms spread per year really isn’t an invasion.
    Now the Macleaya may be a worry from what you say. We’ve tried growing it a couple of times in the past with no success, but last year got a plant to establish. We’ll have to keep a close eye on it, though there is plenty of room for it at the moment.

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