The Ventilator

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Invasive species

Invasion of the swingers

Matthew Chatfield
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The Ranger is fond of internet tittle-tattle, and occasionally enjoys the salacious titbits found on the Holy Moly gossip website. There’s something curiously compelling in scurrilous untruths about people you’ve either never heard of, or wish you’d never heard of. This week amongst tales of huge stars like Jodie Marsh’s ex-husband and that disaster area pop star Pete Doherty, it asked, in all innocence:

QUESTION! Which TV couple were mightily pleased to plant the old ‘pampas grass’ in their front garden as a marriage saver?

Goodness knows what the answer is – and indeed it’s pretty irrelevant. But what’s this about pampas grass? Some euphemism obviously… but for what? The Ranger’s interest was piqued.

Pampas grass, Berkshire © Fabricator of useless articles

It didn’t take long to find out a few juicy facts about pampas grass. Now pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), a native of South America, is a widely-used ornamental grass. For many years it has been planted in suburban gardens across Britain and elsewhere. It grows easily and takes little management. It was particularly popular in the mid-twentieth century when open-plan gardens became more popular, and quick-growing, low-maintenance plants came into vogue; another example being the dreaded Leylandii. Vulnerability to fire meant that pampas was never hugely popular in public parks and gardens, but nevertheless it has remained a staple of informal British landscape gardening for a long time. Strangely, the rest of the world views pampas grass quite differently. Apart from South America where it is indigenous, most other nations seem to view it as a pernicious pest. In the USA, the National Park Service gives advice on how to destroy it, and invites us to:

Discourage people from picking the plumes and waving them around, transporting them in vehicles or attaching them to their radio antenna. These plumes are full of viable seeds which will be dispersed everywhere!

In New Zealand, it is apparently illegal to even sell or plant it. It’s a similar story in Australia and South Africa, and elsewhere. So what do our former colonies know about pampas that we in the UK do not? The ominous answer is that we’re about to find out. In the British climate, pampas grass does not usually set seed successfully. Anyone who’s seen the big fronds will realise just how many seeds a big clump can produce, so it’s a good job they never do anything. But with the gradually warming temperature, that’s about to change. On a nature reserve very close to where The Ranger lives, he was examining the site recently when a colleague pointed out the clumps of pampas which were springing up along the edge, all downwind of a holiday camp where the grass had been planted. There was none there a few years ago. It looks as though action is going to be needed to control it – but if the seeds keep coming there’s no action that can stop them germinating. All that can be done is to get rid of them once they do. Reports from other parts of southern Britain suggest the same thing is happening. And if climate change is indeed to blame then it will spread northwards. If pampas gets established in natural habitats it probably won’t be a good thing – it grows fast, supports little wildlife of its own and will displace native species. But hold on, what about the cultural significance of pampas grass? The answer to the Holy Moly riddle suggests that this spread of pampas is not just an environmental problem: it could unpick the very fabric of British society! It appears that to have pampas grass planted in your front garden is a secret signal that you are a ‘swinger‘. If that’s the case, sooner or later we’ll all be at it as pampas silently creeps into our gardens and corrupts our morals. Perhaps the forces of moral outrage could be harnessed to do some good for once, and given billhooks to go out and uproot the evil of pampas grass once and for all.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

8 thoughts on “Invasion of the swingers

  • baby products

    As global warming heats it up enough to grow and seed Pampas grass does that mean the whole island will heat up with more swinging

  • Kevinincornwall

    Just cleared 8′ dia clump from garden. Dry day – a singe match & hose at the ready. Burn baby burn, the blackened growing stems dig out easily.

    On a boundary is an ancient 15′ row that never flowers – seems to be well browsed by both cattle and deer.

  • Wildlife Gardener

    At a recent local Gardener’s Question Time the same problem came up. The general concensus was to build a bonfire in the middle of it, light and stand well back.

  • D. Hagerty

    I still don’t know what to use to kill the stuff. I was told burning after cutting made it easier for it to grow new in the spring. I have two other grasses which get 4′ high and approximately 4′ around to either side of the pampas. It actually is quite attractive, but I am getting older (and crankier) and am just plain tired of cutting the pampas. Am about ready to just start spraying roundup on it as it begins to grow. what think you about this method?

    The Ranger responds: Roundup (or any glyphosate) will kill it alright, but it will need a fairly strong solution as pampas grass is a tough leaf that will not absorb it well. Don’t waste that expensive chemical on new leaves, wait until they are big and spray it when it is growing most actively, and then the chemical will be absorbed by the active plant and not just roll off.

  • Good grief, we’ve got some in our garden, inherited from previous owners. We got rid of the heraldic lions on the gateposts easily enough, but apparently flame throwers are the only thing that can destroy pampas grass, and I just haven’t got round to it. I loathe it on aesthetic grounds (never mind my own non-aesthetic grinds), and visitors know that it’s ironic pampas grass, referencing my own laziness and lack of concern for la bella figura. Luckily it’s not started to proliferate yet — but now I’ve read this, its days are numbered. Filth.

  • Hm! Pampas grass is actually quite common where I lived previously (New Mexico), but is not allowed in the stupid neighborhood I currently live in (Arizona). There are many people who have pampas grass as ornamental ‘grass’ in AZ, just not in my stupid neighborhood. They also don’t allow roses. Yes: roses. As in “roses are red, violets are blue, this neighborhood is stupid, I like pampas grass too”.

  • That is so strange it just might be true. I have not heard of this in the United States, and has no entry. I have seen it called a hoax and that it is real.

    The problem is, how to know if someone planted the thing on purpose or inherited one when they bought the place. What about all of the new ones that will sprout in unsuspecting peoples yards. As global warming heats it up enough to grow and seed Pampas grass does that mean the whole island will heat up with more swinging? Another unforeseen consequence of global warming.

    It is also funny that Wikipedia mentions cultivars winning awards of merit even while it is banned as invasive in some regions. You could join the Pampas Grass Vigilante Squad if you like (it really did exist).

  • Ooh-er. I didn’t know about the ‘undertones’. It was quite popular when I was a child, a lot of our neighbours had it. I’ll see them in a whole new light now LOL


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