We tend to think of grasses used as decorative garden plants as a new development in planting design. Pioneered by Karl Foerster in Germany in the 1930s, his naturalistic planting schemes used grasses and late flowering perennials, a style which has been embraced and developed by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, and many others, and remains very influential today. So it may come as a surprise that long before the current fashion for prairie style planting, grasses were grown in European gardens as far back as the sixteenth century.
At the front of the arrangement in the painting above by Maria van Oosterwijck (1630 – 1693) there is a strand of boldly striped green and white ribbon grass, contrasting with the dark background and the pink flowers of a hollyhock. The long leaves make contact with marble surface upon which the vase of flowers stands and seem to be reaching out further, almost to the edge of the canvas, inviting us to touch them. One of a pair of beetles is starting to climb a leaf.
If we believe that the blooms depicted in the Dutch flower paintings of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries represent those most valued by horticulturalists and collectors, it is interesting to see this grass given such a prominent place among the roses, carnations and poppies.
The RHS lists ten common names for Phalaris arundinacea var. picta including gardener’s garters, bride’s laces, and lady grass as well as the more familiar ribbon grass. The number of names would seem to indicate that the plant has a long history of cultivation and was well known in the UK.
John Gerard in The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) describes the grass as being, ‘like to laces of white and greene silke, very beautiful, and faire to behold’ and explains it is ‘kept and maintained in our English gardens, rather for pleasure than for vertue’, (meaning that ribbon grass had no known practical or medicinal qualities). We know that ribbon grass was cultivated in ordinary gardens in the nineteenth century as it is mentioned by John Clare in a list of cottage garden plants alongside wallflowers, pinks and lavender.
Ribbon grass is quite tall (approx 60cm) so too high to fit into the standard rectangular illustration frame size for the Herball. In the 1597 version the whole plant has been shrunk to fit the frame, but in the updated Herball of 1633 the artist has indicated scale more accurately by cutting the grass stem and placing the roots, stalk and flowering head together.
Ribbon grass is a very easy plant to grow. An ideal site would be sunny with a damp soil; it will tolerate some shade and a dry soil, but the seedheads will not form unless it receives a few hours of sun each day. At its best in spring and summer, the stems collapse in winter, so it doesn’t make good winter structure like miscanthus or calamagrostis.
It would be good to see more ribbon grass grown in historical planting schemes, as it was clearly a valued garden plant in the past. It associates well with herbaceous plants and creates pools of brightness next to evergreens. Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750), a contemporary of Oosterwijck, also uses ribbon grass in her compositions – the National Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum have examples of her paintings in their collections. Well worth checking out on their websites (or better still, visit the galleries if you can).