Pampas Grass – in South Wales!


Ah! Boyhood memories come flooding back! The rattle of almost-dry stalks, the fluttering of white plumes – it is a clump of Cortaderia selloana, or pampas grass. Once a staple of every Victorian garden, the plant is actually a native of Argentina, Chile and Brazil, as its name would suggest. It was named for Friedrich Sellow, a German botanist (1789-1831). C. selloana grows up to 9 feet tall, and the huge ‘clumps’ can be up to 20 feet in circumference. Handling the plant can be very difficult, as the edges of the leaves are VERY sharp.

Pampas grass was one of a trio of signature Victorian flora which virtually defined a generation, the other two being the aspidistra (Aspidistra elatior), and the superb, rose-tinted magnolia (Magnolia campbellii). It was in great demand at Christmas and on other occasions, so much so that it was grown commercially in California during the later part of the 19th century, and the dried plumes (really, the plant’s flowery inflorescence) were exported to as far away as Germany and the U.K. for use in house decorations and to dress ladies’ hats. Demand sagged after WW1, and the acres and acres of plants were burned off (they are very flammable). The plant you see here is a female (the male plants make differing and less attractive plumes) and is in my brother’s front garden in South Wales, close to the seashore. This area enjoys very mild weather usually, due to the Gulf Stream, which modifies the climate of the British Isles, particularly the west-facing coasts.

Pampas grass is still being sold in certain garden centers and nurseries around the world, but it has become a major environmental problem. The seed heads release tens of thousands of seeds which are dispersed on the wind. This has given rise to ‘noxious weed’ classification in California, and ‘invasive plant’ designation in Hawai’i; indeed, the ‘WeedUS’ database also reports problems from New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

There is another, even stranger, connection between Wales and Argentina (and my brother). He attended a college in Wales, and got to know a boy from the Patagonian region in Argentina, who spoke only two languages, Welsh and Spanish. There was an area of Patagonia which was settled by people from Wales during the period 1865 – 1878. The towns of Gaiman and Trelew, to this day, keep Welsh customs, including tea houses!

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2 comments on “Pampas Grass – in South Wales!”

  1. Regarding Wales and southern Argentina — we watched, last night, a DVD about Argentina and we learned of the Wales influence. Serendipity! It was one of the Globe Trekker series and the host is Justine Shapiro.

    The DVD had 5-10 minutes in Trelew. All looked Welsh and spoke Welsh though they are Aregentinian.

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    • I worked for a number of years with Dr Julio Vimo, an Argentinian MD who has now retired back to Patagonia. A wonderful land, of rivers stuffed full with monster trout, and almost limitless views!

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