There was a large clump of Pampas grass in full flower in the Botanical Gardens in Leicester, and when I arrived back in Spain the plant in my garden is flowering also. I like the dramatic appearance of this very large plant, the feathery flowerheads are beautiful when lit by the sun and bow and sway gracefully when the wind passes through.
Cortaderia selloana, commonly known as Pampas Grass, is a tall grass native to southern South America and Patagonia and is named for the areas of pampas where it is found.
Pampas Grass is a tall grass, growing in dense tussocks that can reach a height of 3 m (9.8 ft) . The leaves are evergreen, usually bluish-green but can be silvery grey; they are long and slender, 1–2 m (3.3 to 6.6 ft) long and 1 cm broad, and one of the downsides of the plant is that they have very sharp edges and should be handled with care.
The flowers are produced in dense silvery white panicles from 20–40 cm (7.9 – 15.8 inches) long and on a 2–3 m (6.6 – 9.8 ft) tall stem.
The plant was named by Alexander von Humboldt in 1818, after the German botanist and naturalist Friedrich Sellow, who studied the flora of South America, especially that of Brazil.
Pampas Grass is highly adaptable and can grow in a wide range of environments and climates. In some areas (for example California, Hawaii and parts of the cooler Northern areas of Spain), it is regarded as an invasive weed, whilst in New Zealand and South Africa the plant is banned from sale and propagation for the same reasons.
I am not too clear how it is regarded here in southern Spain, but it is a frequent sight around our area where it grows on the roadsides and more particularly in our local nature reserve. It does not seem to cause concern there and is actually named on one of the information boards as being present.
The flowerheads are very long-lasting, appearing first in September, but after a winter of being battered by rain and wind, the plant begins to look rather scruffy. Despite that, I leave mine to stand beacause at some time towards the end of April or early May, the local flock of House Sparrows will begin to arrive to collect what remains of the fluffy flowerheads.
It is a delightful scene; over the course of a few days the Sparrows strip the stems piece by piece, cramming their beaks with as much material as possible, then fly off with it, I assume in order to line their nests. They come in relays, both males and females and work industriously until there is nothing left on the dry stems and even pieces dropped to the ground will be gleaned. This has to be instinctive species behaviour as the House Sparrows that shared our garden in South Wales used to do exactly the same thing to the plant in our neighbour’s garden.
My plant grows a distance away from where I sit to watch the birds and it is in a shaded spot, so I did not immediately spot that Greenfinches sometimes join with the sparrows for a share of the grass. I am not sure whether they too take it for nesting purposes or because there may still be seeds there to eat, but they want it badly enough to squabble over. They are not the only species I’ve spotted muscling in, the last couple of years Blackbirds have also been taking a share.
Pampas as a part of social history
Pampas grass was a very fashionable garden plant back in the 1970s, advocated for inclusion by the likes of Percy Thrower and has become a gardening icon of that decade. It was equally stylish to have a large vase of the dried fluffy plumes in the living room, where they looked very decorative, (I confess to having them myself- they collected a lot of dust). In recent years the plant seems to have fallen from favour, perhaps because it is a very large and modern gardens are on the small side, or maybe it is because growing the plant seems to have acquired a new symbolism, particularly if you display it in your front garden….
(tongue in cheek this next bit, no offence intended)
A widespread urban myth is that Pampas grass is used by swingers to advertise their presence to other swingers in the area. The most commonly repeated version states that in the UK and Ireland a patch of Pampas grass is planted somewhere in the front garden to act as a signal to passers by that swingers live in the home.
I had not heard that before and have to say that my plant was in the garden when I arrived, and will remain to attract and benefit a different kind of wildlife ( fortunately a high wall conceals its presence from the sight of non-flying passers-by.)
Despite the connotations, I would still recommend Pampas grass as an addition to a garden designed to benefit wildlife, if only to enhance the lives of your local House Sparrows, just be careful where you place it!