I am always will be a little bit obsessed with grass. Not the ‘medicinal’ variety, but the real McCoy growing all alongside our highways in different shapes, textures, colors and sway. For me it’s as much of a fun challenge to spot the rare species of grass alongside my road on the way to work, as it would be for someone else to spot the big 5 in the Kruger Park.
And what makes it all the more thrilling for me as a designer, is that at long last grass has found itself in the forefront of modern garden design and is a must have item for the modern hip gardener at the moment. But the problem with that is availability. In South Africa grasses are extremely limited, especially when it comes to our indigenous grass species. Why? I mean Africa is known for its open endless savannas. It’s what all the African Hollywood movies have as a set – a few flat crown acacia trees, an elephant or two, a magnificent red sunset and the all important grassy look to round it off with.
To search for indigenous grass species that are new to our commercial retail market is very important to me in promoting South African plants, and oh boy, did mother nature spoil us with a endless range of candidates.
I have long heard about the lost valley or locally known as verloren vallei, apparently a hot spot when it comes to terrestrial orchids, bird watching and weird grasses. Especially one grass called Stibirus. I have been looking for this beauty for a while, so it was time to go see it for myself!
Verloren vallei is located on the eastern highlands of southern Africa, close to the charming town of Dullstroom, a town where trout fishing is a religion and relaxing is Law. It was pouring with rain and the mist was hanging low over the muddy road when I finally arrived at the gate in front of the park – the gate all rusty and askew, and the office locked and closed. I guess they felt like sleeping in a bit. Who can blame them in weather like this! I parked the car, climbed out and all I could see was endless whiteness all alongside me, but you could be certain that the African sun would soon burn holes through the white misty morning blanket.
And so it did. After a coffee and a moist cinnamon muffin, the mist started to lift, and bit by bit the unveiling of verloren vallei unfolded. It felt like Christmas morning, ripping off the wrapping paper from the biggest present under the tree. Grasses galore! Just what I wanted!
The park has about 30 wetland systems and is home to the world’s rarest cranes, the blue crane, wattled crane and the crown crane. Wildlife is also not in short supply as oribi, zebra, caracal, brown hayena, jackal, and serval cats are abundant in the area. (Armed with a small can of pepper spray I headed out to explore the valley).
Most of the slopes are completely covered with the wavy leaved Crocosmia paniculata. In flower it must be a sea of bright orange. In between the rock cracks and on the overgrown maintenance road grow the very odd looking and flat leaved Brunsvigia, with a few Disa orchids and eucomus popping up through the grass. And oh yes, the main reason I came – the grasses were in full flush of flower showing off their seed heads by waving it in the light breeze.
Black seed heads from the yuncus, silver seed heads from the panicum, cream ones from the miscanthus, and purple pom poms from the fairy tail grass – Stibirus alopecuroides. The one I was looking for!
I am completely obsessed with stibirus. It has a grey silver upright leaf with fine, baby-soft hair on the edges. It is a evergreen perenial grass that stays about 30cm tall. Due to the fine hair on the leaf, the dew in the morning turn the grass into a small crystal ornament that glitters in the morning sun. The best part for me is the distinct, dark-purple bunny tail inflorescence. There are 2 varieties – the first one has a short and fat dark purple tassel and the second has a longer and more narrow seedhead – very upright but also dark purple in color.
Stibirus flower from February untill May and love damp soil, but can tolerate a dry spell or two. Extreme cold is also not a problem as verloren vallei gets a sprinkle of snow each winter.
This is a grass that is just shouting TAKE ME, USE ME! And ignore that we won’t.
Stibirus has huge potential for the landscape market in South Africa, and will be available on the retail shelves from February 2014.