Great Piece of Turf

March 21, 2017

When I visited the author and ecologist/botanist, Philip Simpson, at his home in Northwest Nelson, Philip showed us around his property, in which several interesting native species (including a magnificent specimen of Melicytus obovatus) occur. Whilst walking around the small vineyard area, Philip stopped at a small patch of exotic grass and herbs, and recounted all of the species (such as the grass, sweet vernal) that occurred in this beautiful little patch of meadow.

The value that Philip placed on what must seem to most people to be a fairly anonymous, insignificant patch of grass reminds me of the kind of observation that Albrecht Durer set down in his painting ‘The Great Piece of Turf’. I became familiar with Durer’s painting through my friend, the artist Michael Shepherd, whilst he was working on a painting that related to Durer’s work (although in Michael’s case, more directly relevant to the context of Otago).

On a site near Queenstown, for which we have recently been preparing a design, the subtle differences between many species of exotic and native pasture/meadow grasses creates a beautiful effect, in the manner that dry grassland often develops in this part of the country. This is interesting from a design point of view, because it raises questions about which areas of the site need to be planted with characteristic local species such as snow tussocks or small-leaved shrubs, and which areas should simply be left to remain with the cover that has developed gradually without significant intervention.

In terms of the processes associated with building, it also highlights the importance of fencing off certain areas of a site, so that a successful default plant community like this does not get obliterated as a result of construction (especially as it serves as a repository for seed that may recolonise the site after construction is completed).

One grass that contributes significantly towards the character of the grassland is browntop, a commonly-planted pasture species which favours sites that are dry and low in fertility. Accordingly, browntop is one of the major species on drier, sloping ground; as can be seen in the photographs below and above, where it is discernible as a pinkish or reddish haze when in flower. In contrast, a less delicate species (Yorkshire fog) dominates damp ground in low-lying parts of the site.

Another species that interested me in particular looks to be a member of a genus of grasses, Anthosachne, which occurs within dry grassland and on banks or rocky ground in this region (most of which, including the endemic Anthosachne aprica, are native to the area). This attractive, upright, buff-coloured grass (which is shown in the uppermost image in this journal entry) delivers yet another tone to this richly textured meadow.