Quaking grass dances and looks golden in the sun – and growing it is a breeze

·3 min read

On a recent visit to Hampshire, I was so taken by seeing so many wild orchids in one place – the marsh fragrant, the pyramidal, the early marsh, and the common twayblade – that I almost missed the grasses. And dancing between them all was the quaking grass, Briza media, its tiny spikelets quivering in the wind.

This has to be one of our prettiest native grasses. It loves unimproved, species-rich grasslands and old meadows, and is such a slight thing it would easily be out-competed by more coarse species of rank grassland. These sorts of low-growing, sparse grasslands with diverse species have had some of the greatest declines in habitats; they now make up less than 1% of land in the UK.

At home, I grow its larger sibling, the greater quaking grass, B. maxima. An annual species and easy to grow, it self-seeds effortlessly, maybe a bit too much, but is easy enough to remove.

On such slight stems, quaking grass can be dotted here and there. It also works well in pots and containers

As their names suggests, these grasses quake: in the slightest of breezes, the spikelets – that’s the flowerheads – dance and sound a gentle rattle. B. media has a purplish colour to its young spikelets, which are not more than a half a centimetre long, whereas B. maxima has greenish spikelets up to 2cm. Both turn buff colour as the summer progresses; in the evening light, they look almost golden. They truly appeal to the senses. These grasses work brilliantly in flower arrangements: they dry well and suit dark backgrounds against which their golden colour glows.

Quaking grasses prefer free-draining soil in full sun. B. maxima grows to about 60cm high, but on such slight stems it doesn’t tend to block anything behind and can be dotted here or there. It also works well in pots and containers.

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The common quaking grass, B. media, is perennial and matt-forming, so it will spread. If you want to keep it compact, divide it every few years in spring. It will look pretty effortless next to Geum Totally Tangerine or salvias, such as Amistad or Salvia x sylvestris Rose Queen, or between calendula or in a wildflower meadow.

It is semi-evergreen. In a cold winter, it will die back but in spring new growth quickly reappears. You’ll be able to pick up good deals on young plants online (try crocus.co.uk). The flower spikes are likely to be cut off for transportation, but these are the sort that bulk up rapidly; if you’re quick, you’ll still get flowers this summer.

B. maxima is best grown from seed: sow in late August/September for May flowering or, if you miss that window, try next spring for late summer flowering. If you find neighbours with plants, ask if you can have a few seed heads, as that’s all that is needed.