Cannomois virgata

(Rottb.) Steud.

Common names:
bell reed, rekoala (Eng.); bergbamboes, besemriet, olifantsriet, perdehoef, assegaai (Afr.)

This is a vigorous, very decorative, reed-like plant with thick main stems and finely divided side branches. It can be used for a mass planting or as an accent plant in the garden, while the young shoots are ideal for flower arrangements.

Cannomois virgata is the botanical name for a group of three or more reed-like plants varying in height from 1.5 to 5 m tall. The average horticulturist may think these groups look quite different, but botanists have had a problem finding enough botanical differences between the groups to divide Male plant in flowerthem into different species. Prof. Peter Linder at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, has recognized these different features and has split the group into three species; (1) plants which grow to a height of 1 to 1.5 metres; (2) plants which grow to a height of 1.5 to 2 metres and (3) those which grow to a height of 5 metres. Unfortunately, Prof. Linder has not published these names yet and all three groups are still called by the same name, Cannomois virgata.

These reed-like plants are clumped or mat-forming. The rhizomes are grow vigorously and the plants can reach a diameter at ground level of about 2 m and a crown diameter of up to 3 m. The common name of olifantsriet refers to the large form of Cannomois virgata, and bergbamboes refers to the tall thick stems, like a bamboo. The strong culms or stems have clusters of sterile branches at the nodes, which can reach a length of one metre and give the plants a very graceful appearance.

The plants flower at the beginning of summer, October to November. The inflorescences grow up to 0.5 m long. The male inflorescences are pale gold in colour and resemble a long raceme with short side branches with small, golden flowers.

Female  plantThe female inflorescences are much shorter and have tight, pale brown bracts which conceal the small insignificant flowers. It takes nearly a year for the seeds to ripen. The female inflorescences of the smaller form flower very poorly, whereas the tall form produces a large amount of inflorescences, which look very ornamental and are used in the dried flower trade. C. virgata grows fairly fast and will have attained its final height two to three years after planting.

Distribution and Habitat

: The smallest form of Cannomois virgata is widespread and occurs from the Cape Peninsula throughout the southwestern mountains to the Outeniqua Mountains in the Eastern Cape. The tall, bamboo-like form has more or less the same distribution but does not occur on the Cape Peninsula, and the medium tall form does not occur on the wetter parts of the mountains. The plants grow in fairly poor soils, in sandstone as well as shale-derived soils. The tall form is often found near streams in gorges or deep valleys. Although plants can be grown in the northern hemisphere, they have to be protected against frost and can not survive in frozen or very cold, wet soils.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The name Cannomois comes from the Greek, canna for cane and omoios meaning similar. Virgata means twiggy.

Cannomois virgata belongs to the large southern hemisphere family of Restionaceae, which has more than 400 species of about 40 genera in southern Africa, Australia, Madagascar, Indo-China and Chile. About 320 species occur in South Africa, most of them in the Cape Floristic Region. At the moment only six species of Cannomois have been described. The best known restio in South Africa is Thamnochortus insignis, which is widely used as long-lasting thatching material.

Like all other Restionaceae, Cannomois virgata is wind pollinated. The seeds are quite large, the tall form having the largest seeds. The hard seed coat is black or very dark brown and is either thin and very brittle or very thick and woody. The nuts have an elaiosome, which is a protein-rich white part on the outside of the seed and is very attractive to ants. Once the seeds are ripe, they fall out of the inflorescence and are carried away by ants almost as soon as they hit the ground. The ants carry them to their nests, eat away the elaiosome but leave the seed undamaged and safe from larger seed eaters like mice or shrews.

Uses and cultural aspects
Cannomois virgata has been used by South Africans for hundreds of years, in the past as brooms and is now gaining popularity in the cut-flower industry. Smith (1966) writes that the restios were probably used long before the first botanists saw restios being used as brooms and as thatching material. The finely branched stems are particularly suitable for the making of brooms. The stems are cut and dried in the sun, the inflorescences are cut off and the stems are tied to a broomstick or a strong handle. The common name besemriet refers to this use. while the common names Rekoala and bell reed, which refers to the part of the stem which carries the golden brown inflorescence, are being used in the cut-flower industry. Rekoala resembles the common names used for the indigenous restios for the cut-flower industry of New Zealand, where only the finely branched stems are used. The most coveted part of the plant by flower arrangers is the young shoot, which is very beautiful, thick, bamboo-like, cream to light green in colour with distinct nodes. However, when too many young shoots are cut at yearly intervals, the plants soon die. As the plants are becoming available from commercial plant nurseries, they will find a well-deserved place in the gardens of the world.

Growing Cannomois virgata

The tall form of Cannomois regenerates from seed and is killed by fire, whereas the smaller form coppices from the rhizome after a fire and produces very little seed. Generally it is very hard to germinate Cannomois seed and at Kirstenbosch the germination percentage is very small, even when the seeds are sown at the right time of the year, autumn, and are treated with smoke.

Vegetative propagation can be tried during the cold part of the year, when the rhizomes can be divided into large chunks and planted in a well-drained soil which must be kept very wet.
The tall form of Cannomois virgata is very decorative, both the male and female plants can best be used as accent plants either in a border, or near a rocky outcrop in a rockery. When planted in large groups the male plants seem to be in the majority. If a female plant consistently produces a lot of seed, the life span is only eight to ten years, whereas the male plants or female plants which produce less seed, can live much longer.

Although the plants in nature often grow near streams and would look very decorative when planted near a pond, they do not like standing water and grow better in drier soils but with regular irrigation.
The plants should be regularly given organic fertilizer or compost to improve the soil. They seem to be remarkably free from pests or diseases.


  • Brown, N., Jamieson, H. & Botha, P. 1998. Grow restios. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
  • Goldblatt, P. & Manning, J. 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Dorrat-Haaksma, E. & Linder, H. P. 2000. Restios of the Fynbos. The Botanical Society of South Africa, Cape Town.
  • Linder, H.P. 1985. Conspectus of the African species of Restionaceae. Bothalia 15: 387-503.
  • Linder, H.P. 1991. A review of the southern African Restionaceae. Contributions from the Bolus Herbarium No. 13.
  • Smith. C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35.


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