An outstanding groundcover for those difficult shady areas under trees, the grass Oplismenus hirtellus makes an interesting textured carpet of deep green leaves.
This is a creeping or rambling perennial grass, which roots and branches freely from the nodes. The broad, deep green, lancet-shaped leaves are held horizontally and create a woven effect when viewed from above. The flowers, which appear from December to June, are borne on longitudinal racemes branching out from the culm or flowering stalk, which extends about 200 mm above the leaves. The purple awns are sticky, especially when fresh.
A typical constituent of the forest undergrowth, tolerating dense shade, basket grass is widespread in the eastern regions of southern Africa . It occurs in the summer rainfall areas and is not usually exposed to frost as it grows underneath trees.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
This is a small genus of three or four species widespread in the subtropical regions of the world, and related to Panicum grass). O. hirtellus is similar in appearance to O. undulatifolius , which occurs in the same habitat, but the latter has clumped, not longitudinal, spikelets.
The name Oplismenus is apparently derived from the Greek hoplismos which means equipment used for war, referring to the awns, which resemble spears; the Latin species name, hirtellus refers to the slightly hairy leaves.
The sticky seeds attach to visiting animals and birds, which carry them to new areas. Most grasses are wind- or self-pollinated, but little is known of the pollination of shade grass.
Uses and cultural aspects
This grass is used horticulturally, especially in the USA , where a variegated pink, white and green form is popular in hanging baskets.
Growing Oplismenus hirtellus
A good groundcover for difficult shady areas, this grass deserves to be used much more extensively. Basket grass is ideal to plant between stepping-stones along shady paths. It can be lightly mowed, but this is best done infrequently and with the lawnmower at the highest setting. As with all shade grasses, a large leaf area is essential to receive enough light for photosynthesis, so it will not survive if kept short. It will also tolerate some sun, and can be planted in less shady areas.
This grass is easy to grow in a mixture of loam, leaf mould, and sand. It may be propagated by runners, or from seed, which is freely produced and germinates readily.
References and further reading
- Gibbs Russell, G.E. et al . 1990. Grasses of southern Africa . Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 58.
- Van Wyk, E. & Van Oudtshoorn, F. 1999. Guide to the grasses of southern Africa . Briza Publications, Pretoria .
KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden