Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Giant Cape Rush

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What an eye-catching stem, with bands of green alternating with mahogany.  Everyone remembers the first time they saw this rush-like plant with the crazy name, Chondropetalum elephantinum.  When the dark-brown flowers emerge—so tiny they look like seed-heads—the show is even better.

 

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And the plant is no slouch, either, when seen at a glance, toe-to-top.  The bright green canes are strikingly tall and narrow, making a clump  that epitomizes sculptural excitement and sophisticated appeal.  Could there be any plant whose aesthetic is farther away from, say, petunias?  Density, strong color, flowers that a two-year-old would love?  Chondropetalum couldn't be bothered with any of that obviousness.

 

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Even at ground-level, this plant is a winner.  It demands a strictly lean diet, with no fertilizer, ever—perfect conditions for the perfect groundcover partner, moss.

 

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The real excitement of the plant, believe it or not, isn't at the bottom or the top of the plant, at all.  It's in the middle.  The mahogany stripes on the canes are actually protective sheaths that shield the new growth on its way up, node to node to node.  After the cane has reached its height, those sheaths are—who knows why?—no longer needed. 

 

Do they just fade away?  Slide down the stem without a whimper?  Hah!  They provide a multi-step show unique in the entire plant world.

 

First, they split apart and flatten out vertically, while remaining attached to the node by just one toe...

 

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..which reveals that their inside isn't magogany at all, but a pale birch-wood color with a surface so shiny that sunlight is caught and reflected out.  The clump becomes studded with beauty.

 

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And then, with balletic grace, the sheaths curl backward and outward, head-to-toe and beyond, all the while still keeping that toe-hold to the node.  Now the reflective inner surface catches light from every angle.  The clump can glow as if strung with pearls.

 

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But by the next day, though, those curls have done a swan dive to the ground.  Those nodes are once again models of aesthetic restraint.  The "sheath show" continues for much of the warm season, though: As long as new canes can emerge, new sheaths will release, flatten, reflect, curl, sparkle—and then float to the ground.

 

 

Here's how to grow a reed whose look is somewhat similar, but which is much, much hardier.

 

Here's how to grow Chondropetalum, itself:

 

Latin Name

Chondropetalum elephantinum; also known as Elegia elephantina.

Common Name

Large Cape Rush

Family

Restionaceae, the Rush family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen (but leafless) perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 9 - 10.

Habit

Leafless vertical canes in clumps so tight (eventually) that the peripheral canes have no choice but to nod outward gracefully, giving the entire mature colony the look of huge shaving brush.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

In ground: A clump six feet tall and wide.  In containers, narrower (and often marvelously vertical) but not shorter.

Texture

Sophisticated, sculptural, and bamboo-like—particularly smart in juxtaposition with starkly modern hardscapes and architecture.

Grown for

the easy drama of its vertical (but eventually, in older and fuller clumps, outward-arching) canes.  They're green with alternating mahogany nodes marked by mahogany sheaths that—huzzah!—curl back to face the sky while revealing a showy, light-catching, and upward-facing interior the color of birch wood. 

 

the dark-brown seed-like blooms at the top of the canes, looking like (you'd hope) wild rice.

 

its long-term contentment in surprisingly small containers, so you can grow your Chondropetalum for many years in a stylish but not spacious urn.

 

its flexibility in its circumstances:  It's quite drought-tolerant, but also happy to grow aquatically.

Flowering season

Spring and Summer.

Culture

In-ground where it's hardy year-round, full sun and almost any soil from somewhat dry to marshy.  Grows faster with regular water in Summer.

 

In containers, I've been advised to grow in standing water; I keep mine in a shallow tub.  So far so good.

How to handle it

This plant's every gesture is sophisticated and sculptural, so site it where all of its talents—big or small, obvious from twenty feet as well as best savoured under gentle magnification—are accessible.  And because it's just as interesting right at ground level—where the canes erupt without warning, bamboo-like, from seemingly undisturbed ground—don't partner with any groundcover taller than moss or gravel.  

 

Canes persist for several years, but are at their most colorful, toe-to-top,  their first season or two.  So in early Spring, before the new canes start to erupt, go over the colony with tiny florist-type clippers and cut out old canes right at ground level.  Old canes are (mostly) easy to spot, even at ground level:  They get mottled and blotchy with age (ah, don't we all), whereas the young canes are solid green.  After you've removed the mottled canes, step back and stand up, so you can see the canes that still look fine at the base but are already dying out at the top.  Follow those down to the base one by one so you can clip them off, too.  Kneeling, standing, stooping, stretching, up-down-up-down: Think of grooming your Chondropetalum as a yoga-like activity.

 

These hyper-detailed grooming tips are a word-to-the-wise that Chondropetalum looks best when it's manicured and thinned and, clearly, examined in detail.  If you just let the colony grow free-range, it will soon get so thick and tight that it will be impossible to clip out old canes cleanly.  Tut tut!

 

When growing in a container in a climate where it's not hardy, move the plant into bright light after the Fall nights have started to get frosty.  (You'll have other things, totally frost-tender, to hustle into cover; Chondropetalum can wait for a bit.)  Keep it sitting in its tub of water, and don't forget to do the grooming before the new canes start.

Downsides

Chondropetalum is tough and adaptable, and looks respectable even without fussy grooming.  But it's only fantastic with it.  And if only it were hardier.  Chondropetalum and all of its cousins mentioned below are at their best, outdoors, in the frost-free (or nearly so) stretches of the Pacific coast.

Variants

There are a number of other rushes to tempt you.  They all thrive in containers, so are easy even outside their hardiness range.  Because their look and habits are so similar, but as a group they are so distinct from the rest of your garden's plants, they're often referred to collectively as "restios," from the family name Restionaceae.  They vary in height, cane thickness, "flower" color, and the showiness and size of the "released" stem sheaths.  Some, like Elegia capensis, also have feathery thread-thin foliage that is impossible not to stroke.  C. elephantinum is elephant-like only in that it's twice the size of its otherwise-identical cousin, C. tectorum.      

Availability

On-line, but only sporadically.  Where hardy in-ground, they are available at destination retailers.

Propagation

By seed as well as division.

Native habitat

South Africa

 
 
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