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.
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.
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. The
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.
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.
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
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
Growing Elegia capensis
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
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.
- 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