The leaves are finally torn from the poplars to reveal their grey, wintry outlines. The last of the autumn colour hangs in the hazel understorey. The Molinia ‘Transparent’* wait until now to do their very best and, as the wood becomes bare, the grasses in the garden begin their blaze.
I first saw Molinia ‘Transparent’ in the mid ‘90’s, growing in the garden of the late Mien Ruys in the Netherlands. I’d gone with my friends Izzy and Gabriela to meet this great designer and to look at her garden, which was ground-breaking for its juxtaposition of loose, naturalistic planting to the geometries of the layout. It was several weeks earlier in the autumn and the molinia were planted alone and in gravel so that you could appreciate their reach and the fullness of filamentous flower. They were spaced so that you could walk between the plants, which arched up and out and towards each other. Planted just as they should be to reveal their form and to make a place of their own. The flowers, which were yet to go to seed, were plum-red forming a dark halo at their extremities. Everything moved as we walked amongst them, swayed by the slightest breeze and our caresses.
I was so taken with them that it would have been impossible to return home without, so I bought three from a nearby nursery growing the very same stock and planted them in my Peckham garden. I placed them on the edge of a small clearing so that they could each have the orbit they needed and where they had room when at full extension to claim the space in late summer. I sent delicate white persicarias up amongst the panicles and the creamy arum lilies that they foregrounded hovered in the criss-cross of their dark plumage.
I left the plants there when we moved as we left in late autumn and grasses hate to be transplanted when their roots become dormant. But when I tried to find them again it quickly became clear that ‘Transparent’ had become muddled in the trade, because of their promiscuous behaviour when put together with other molinias. The impostors I bought were poor relatives, not as graceful nor as gauzy. Worried that I may have lost my originals and their associations, I wrote to David and Megumi, who’d taken on our Peckham house and who were enjoying the legacy of the garden. Megumi very kindly sent me a spring division.
This single plant was grown on in my stock bed and divided into four when it was large enough. By the time we were ready to plant the garden, I had big enough clumps to be able to split and step plants to either side of the paths. They were the tone setters and what drove the planting around them, and the prime agent of the mood change that happens where the paths intersect in the middle of the garden. I thought about Mien Ruy’s calculated use of space and air in her planting to play to their airiness and have given them a good three metres between plants so that they barely touch. They reach just enough so that they brush you as you move in the clearing made by the path. All the plants around them are low to allow them an uninterrupted ascent and spread. Salvia patens, Calamintha sylvatica ‘Menthe’ and low-growing Sanguisorba ‘Tanna’.
Molinia grow in damp ground and clearings in Europe, so they like our retentive soil. They have not suffered at all in the last two summers, but this year I have noticed that their reach is a little curtailed, as they have reserved some energy for not having as much water. Their colour in the last fortnight, as we have made the transition from autumn to winter, has been stronger than ever though. Glowing a tawny ginger on wet days and luminous as the mists hang in the valley they provide a spun gold counterpoint to the upright black skeletons of digitalis, veronicastrum and agastache. You have to take in their glory right now when they are at their peak, because molinia are the first to topple when wet weather and frost take their toll. By the end of the month their airy crowns will lie akimbo, falling whichever way the wind takes them like pick-up-sticks. We leave them where they fall into dormancy. Parchment pale and ephemeral when their gauze is gone, but always very much there to look forward to.
*The full name is Molinia caerulea ssp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 3 December 2022