Elegia capensis 

(Burm.f.) Schelpe

Family:
Restionaceae
Common names:
horsetail restio (Eng.); besemriet, fonteinriet, katstert, kanet (Afr.)

Elegia capensis

This restio is a tall, dark green, elegant plant with large, decorative, papery sheaths along the stems. It is a good feature plant next to a pond, a swimming pool or in the garden.

Description
Sheaths at the nodes.The stems (culms) grow from underground rhizomes, are quite thick, divided into sections (internodes) like bamboo plants and can be up to 3 m tall. At each node there is a circle of clumps of long, needle-like branches, which give the plant its horsetail-like appearance. The young stems also have a large, leaf-like structure or sheath around the stem at each node, which protects the growing point as each section is formed. As the stem grows older, these sheaths become stiff and parchment-like and stand away from the stem. This is a very decorative stage of the growth of the plant and to an observant gardener, the plants produce an intriguing crackling noise as the sheaths dry out in the sun and the plants seem to whisper to the garden around them. When the plants are nearly ready to flower, the sheaths fall off and leave the stems with a thin line and the long, fully-grown clumps of needle-like branches.

Female inflorencesAt this stage, the large male or female inflorescences begin to unfurl at the top of the branches, at first also enclosed in a large, leaf-like bract (spathe), which falls off as the inflorescence matures. Both male and female inflorescences are about 350 mm long, first golden brown, later dark brown. Male inflorescenceThe inflorescences are decorative from about September to February. The actual flowers are very small, white or greenish yellow and open during October-November. The seeds look like small, winged nuts and are ripe during March.

The plants form a thick forest of stems and can eventually occupy quite a large space if the rhizomes are not kept in check. The growth during the first two years may seem fairly slow, the plants reaching a height of 1 m during their first year. Depending on the amount of water available, they will reach a height of about 2.5 m after three years. From then on the rhizomes spread fast and the plant can easily reach a diameter of 3 to 5 m.

Distribution
This is a very widespread species in or near the mountain ranges of the western, southern and eastern Cape, as far as Port Elizabeth. The plants grow from near sea level to an altitude of 1 600 m in fairly poor, sandy soils but always near watercourses, in seepages on mountain slopes or in areas where groundwater is present. Where there is a lot of water the plants look lush and deep green. With less water the plants are under more stress and they will be smaller with a sparser and more yellowish look. Unless well protected, the plants should not be exposed to frost and require the growing conditions of a Mediterranean climate with a reasonable amount of irrigation.

Link to map for this species

Derivation of name and historical aspects.
At first sight, Elegia capensis looks more like a giant version of the common horsetail than a reed. It was first described as Equisetum or horsetail, from the family Equisetaceae, which occurs worldwide. The genus Elegia, and 18 other genera belong to the family Restionaceae. Elegia has 35 species. The name Elegia is presumed to come from the Greek elegeia, a song of lamentation, and may be a reference to the rustling sound of the papery sheaths and bracts in the breeze. The species name capensis refers to the Cape distribution.

Ecology
The plants grow in areas where windless days are very rare and the pollination as well as the seed distribution is done by the wind. It is quite unusual that the small flowers in the inflorescence do not all flower at the same time, so the flowering season can stretch over a few weeks. The seeds are, therefore, not all ripe at the same time. While most other genera of the Restionaceae make seed collecting difficult because all the seed is shed in a matter of days, the genus Elegia will have some seed still present even when the main ripening period is over. There is very little attraction in restios for insects. Apart from bees, which are attracted by pollen, the plants provide shelter in between the large bracts for some small beetles.

This plant survives the fires that sweep the fynbos regions by resprouting from its underground rhizome.

Uses and cultural aspects
Elegia capensis has been in cultivation and commercially available in South Africa from about 1974 and is one of the most popular garden species. Because of the relative ease of seed gathering, there are more species of Elegia available commercially than from any other genus. E. capensis is now also grown in gardens in the south of England and in parts of the United States. The young stems with their decorative, furled leaf sheaths are used for flower arranging.

Traditionally, E. capensis has been used as a broom by binding the sturdy stems with their tufts of foliage to a broomstick. E. cuspidata, E. equisetacea and E. fistulosa are also excellent garden plants.

Growing Elegia capensis

Growing next to a pond in KirstenboschElegia capensis is best displayed near water, whether a small stream, a pond or a swimming pool. As long as the plants have a regular supply of water in the form of groundwater or irrigation, a well-drained soil and full sun or very light shade, they should do well in a frost-free garden. Because of the rapid growth of the rhizomes, the plants are not suited to very restricted spaces. Appropriate companion plants are ferns, but also other fynbos area plants like Proteaceae and Rutaceae.

E. capensis can be propagated by seed or to a smaller degree by division. The seeds react well to treatment with smoke or with the 'Instant Smoke Plus' seed primer. Without this treatment the germination rate is poor. The plants can not easily be subdivided as the root system is very sensitive but large plants can be divided by cutting up the plants in large pieces and planting these immediately. The plants are best grown from seed, which is produced in large quantities by the female plants.
The plants adapt to a large variety of soil types but do not like to grow in heavy clay soils or in soils with a clay layer.

The best time for planting restios is at the beginning of the rainy season, April-May in fynbos areas. The plants need regular watering to look at their best. They may be fed with standard organic fertilizers, a slow-release fertilizer or by sprinkling the surrounding soil with a small amount of ammonium sulfate during the growing season. Sometimes this species will suddenly start to look yellowish, showing a need for a fairly high nitrogen fertilizer.

The plants produce a new flush of stems every year. The individual stems start to deteriorate during the third year after emergence and these stems should be removed during the fourth year. By that time already three new flushes of growth will have appeared for the yearly renewal of the plant. This governs the maintenance of the plant, which only needs a regular removal of the brown, dead stems. The underground rhizomes of E. capensis coppice after fires which occur regularly in fynbos areas.

References

  • 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 13: 209-264
  • Pillans, N.S. 1928. The African genera and species of Restionaceae. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 16: 207-440.
  • See this plant on SIBIS

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