Category Archives: Grasses

The English Hay Meadow

Helmingham Hall, Suffolk May 2018

Meadow planting is enjoying a wave of popularity right now both in private gardens and public spaces.  As well as looking natural and beautiful, the variety of flowers and seeds they produce offer great benefits to wildlife, such as pollinating insects and birds.

But what are the origins of the meadow these modern plantings reference and attempt to re-create?  Broadly, the inspiration is the traditional hay meadow, where grasses and other plants were grown to be cut and dried, supplying winter fodder for cattle.  In today’s decorative meadows the balance between grasses and flowers tends towards the dominance of flowers, but when hay was still a crop, grasses were the most important plants in the meadow.

Benjamin Stillingfleet’s illustrated study Observations on Grasses (1762) gives some valuable insights into the 18th century meadow.  In this brief account, he explains how meadows were planted and managed, and discusses in detail the best  grasses for a good hay crop.  Stillingfleet’s research on meadow grasses is intended to educate the farmer so the most suitable kinds of grasses can be grown.  He observes how, until recently, the study of these grasses has been neglected,

‘The farmer for want of distinguishing, and selecting grasses for feed, fills his pastures either with weeds, or bad, or improper grasses; when by making a right choice, after some trials he might be sure of the best grass, and in the greatest abundance that his land admits of.’

Stillingfleet criticises the imprecise way in which farmers acquire seed, which was generally collected from their own hay stack or from a neighbour.  The disadvantage of sowing this mixture is that weeds are introduced; ‘I have seen it filled with weeds not natural to it, and which never would have sprung up, if they had not been brought there.’  Stillingfleet’s solution is to gather very specific grass seeds, so that the mixture contains the best kinds of grasses for the type of soil and situation, and weeds can be kept to a minimum.  He describes enlisting the help of children to perform this task;

‘I have had frequent experience how easy it is to gather the seeds of grasses, having employed children of ten or eleven years old several times, who have gathered many sorts for me without making any mistakes, after I had once shewn them the sorts I wanted.’

The charming illustrations of ten of the finest hay grasses are a valuable aid to the identification of these plants for the general reader, as grasses are quite hard to tell apart from descriptions alone.

‘Many people having expressed a desire that I should have plates of some of the profitable grasses added to this piece, that most excellent man, the late Mr Price of Foxley, whose extraordinary character I shall always revere, and do intend to give a sketch of on some future occasion, kindly condescended to employ his pencil, which in the opinion of the best judges was equal to things of a much superior nature, in making me several drawings from the plants themselves, and a very able hand has supplied the rest and engraved them all.’

One of the most beautiful grasses to be found in the hay meadow is the meadow fox-tail which grows to around a metre in height, and was also considered one of the best for high quality hay.

‘I am informed that the best hay which comes to London is from the meadows where this grass abounds.  I saw this spring a meadow not far from Hampstead which consisted of this grass chiefly with some of the vernal grass and the corn brome grass. It might be gathered at almost any time of the year from hay ricks, as it does not shed its seeds without rubbing, which is the case of but few grasses.’

Benjamin Stillingfleet (1702 – 1771) was a naturalist and author, accepted as one of the first in England to use the principles of Linnaeus in his botanical studies.  His portrait by Zoffany hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

The modern meadow is unlikely to be harvested for cattle, and the flowers it contains may well include non-native species.  But meadow plantings using indigenous plants blend so well with the English landscape and its vernacular buildings, and seem to tie these elements together seamlessly.  Mass plantings of ordinary plants like buttercups and cow parsley have a freshness and radiance at this time of year which can stop you in your tracks.

Vernal grass  ‘It is very plentiful in the best meadows about London, viz. towards Hampstead and Hendon.’

Meadow foxtail grass (Alopecurus pratensis)  One of the taller grasses, to approx 1m.

Fine bent grass

Mountain hair grass  ‘It grows in great plenty on Bagshot Heath’

Silver hair grass

Great meadow grass

Annual meadow grass  ‘This grass makes the finest of turfs.  It is called in some parts the Suffolk grass.  ..as some of the best salt butter we have comes from that county, it is most likely to be the best grass for the dairy.’

Sheeps fescue grass

Flote fescue grass

Crested dogs-tail grass  ‘This grass I imagine is proper for parks.’

Meadow foxtail grass Alopecurus pratensis (foreground and against yew trees) in a planting of cow parsley, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

Cow parsley, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

Meadow planting with willow edging, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk May 2018

Observations on Grasses from Archive.org

Ribbon Grass

Still Life with Flowers in a Decorative Vase 1670 – 75 Maria van Oosterwijck  (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Ladie Lace Grasse from The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes 1597 (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

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.

Lady-lace Grasse from The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes 1633 (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

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).

Garland with blossoms 1683 Rachel Ruysch (Wikimedia Commons)

Phalaris arundinacea var. picta or Ribbon grass

Further Reading:

The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes

Maria van Oosterijck

Rachel Ruysch

Rachel Ruysch at the National Gallery

Alistair Sooke on Dutch Flower Paintings