“Plants travel. Especially herbs.
They move in silence, like the wind. Nothing can be done about the wind ……… Unthinkable landscapes are already being designed in the sky”.1
Amongst the many interesting philosophical propositions put forward by the French garden designer and landscape theorist, Gilles Clément, one that has been of particular relevance to our own work is the principle of ‘The Garden in Movement’. The essential premise of this idea is that dynamism is an inevitable process that may be embraced (and edited) within the design of gardens and other landscapes.
Seen thus, the garden can be a bounded frame in which species like the distinctly mobile Anemanthele lessoniana move around. The way in which A. lessoniana enthusiastically pops up within (and beyond) places in which it has been planted belies the increasing scarcity of this beautiful forest tussock in the wild.
Having been known to be relatively sparse in nature for a long time (as far back as the late 19th Century2, when Buchanan noted it as ‘not found abundant anywhere’), and it is now considered to be an ‘At Risk’ species – having been re-classified from the more acute threat category of ‘Nationally Vulnerable’ in 20183.
The genus Anemanthele comprises just one species, which is confined to New Zealand’s shores. It is predominantly naturally found within dry forest and scrub, mostly on the drier eastern side of our two main islands.
When researching native plants, it is interesting to not only look at the observations of various authors, but also the differing perspectives that they come from. I am often reminded of this when I look at the work of early botanists such as Thomas Kirk (who conducted the seminal work on the potential of native trees for timber in the late 19th Century) and John Buchanan (who prepared the first comprehensive work solely devoted to New Zealand’s grasses2).
From a contemporary viewpoint, it now seems unusual to be considering a species like Anemanthele lessoniana in terms of its feed value for livestock or its use in the manufacture of paper. However, these (in addition to some consideration of aesthetics) were the kinds of variables that Buchanan examined within his book. Ironically, it was partially through discounting its suitability for economic purposes that Buchanan arrived at recommending it as an ornamental species, stating that “this New Zealand Wind Grass presents a very beautiful tussac object for the decoration of lawns, banks of streams, or margins of ponds” [sic].
Up until recently, almost all commercially-available material that I have come across is not able to be traced back to wild sources; a situation that is perhaps attributable to the ease with which plants in cultivation produce abundant seed. Other than a collection from a Blenheim roadside several decades ago (by Terry Hatch), from which many plants currently in production probably descend, the only other ‘sourced’ material4 that I have encountered are from Mt Surf (in Wairarapa) and the Hackett River catchment near Nelson (where these photos were taken).
When I visited it, this Nelson population took me by surprise, as the plants had a very different appearance from the typical form of Anemanthele lessoniana grown within gardens. In addition to having much coarser, greener leaf blades, these tussocks had a considerably stiffer, more robust growth form than ‘typical’ plants from cultivation.
Anemanthele lessoniana is now firmly established as one of our most popular native grasses, and is also extensively planted overseas – notably in England and North America, where it has been sold by many nurseries for a long time. Although it tolerates conditions in high light, it is best cultivated with some measure of shade to maintain its characteristic billowing form and green appearance.
Gossamer grass receives its common names (the other being ‘wind grass’) from the wispy, trailing flowerheads that it produces in summer. In his excellent book on the cultivation of our native grasses5, Lawrie Metcalf commented upon the attraction of the reddish tinge that flowerheads take on when they first appear, as well as the beauty of specimens of A. lessoniana when covered in water (at which time innumerable droplets adorn the filigreed network of flowerheads and leaves).