Melica decumbens Thunb.
Common names: staggers grass (Eng.); dronkgras (Afr.)
Melica decumbens is a short grass producing many flowering stems with spikelets (flowers) that usually have dark purple glumes (bracts) that contrast beautifully with the long silky hairs present. Although not known in cultivation as yet, it is surely a grass worth trying in the garden.
Staggers grass is a tufted perennial growing to about 500 mm tall. It is a very coarse plant with leaves that are usually rolled and very rough to the touch. The spikelets have long silky hairs on the inside and are surrounded by papery hairless, usually purple bracts. Flowering time is throughout most of the summer, from October to April.
Distribution and habitat
Melica decumbens has a limited distribution in South Africa, being found only in the arid areas of central South Africa, namely Free State, parts of the Northern Cape, Eastern and Western Cape and in Lesotho (see map). Staggers grass and M. racemosa (melic grass, haakgras) are endemic (i.e native to) to southern Africa.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The origin of the genus name Melica is uncertain, but mel is derived from the Latin meaning honey and ica means 'belonging to'. The genus has about 80 species and occurs mainly in the temperate regions of the world.
The species epithet decumbens is derived from the Latin meaning prostrate withturned-up tips. Melica decumbens can easily be confused with M. racemosa, a more wide-spread species which is much more straggling with an open tuft and with usually smaller spikelets which are not purple.
It grows on hillsides and mountainsides amongst rocks, under trees and shrubs, occasionally in disturbed areas along roadsides.
The name 'staggers' comes from the fact that if cattle, donkeys and horses eat large quantities they stagger about as if drunk. The condition is not fatal and the animal will recover, if looked after. Luckily, because of the very coarse leaves, it is not very palatable except in the very young stage.
Growing Melica decumbens
Staggers grass grows between rocks and is fairly short, therefore could probably be used well as a border plant or on a rockery. It will also grow in semi-shade. As far as known it has never been cultivated in gardens, but as it is very pretty, especially when covered with dew or raindrops, it seems worthwhile to try and introduce it in one's wild and/or indigenous garden. Any information on the cultivation of Melica decumbens will be appreciated. Please leave a comment below.
- Gibbs Russell, G.E., Watson, L., Koekemoer, M., Smook, L., Barker, N.P., Anderson, H.M. & Dallwitz, M.J. 1991. Grasses of southern Africa. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 58.
- Kellerman, T.S., Coetzer, J.A.W. & Naudé, T.W. 1988. Plant poisonings and mycotoxicoses of livestock in southern Africa. Oxford University Press, Cape Town.
- Moffett, R. 1997. Grasses of the eastern Free State. UNIQWA, Phuthaditjhaba.
- Van Oudtshoorn, F. 1999. A guide to the grasses of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
National Herbarium, Pretoria
Plant Type: Grass
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, Northern Cape, Western Cape
Flowering season: Early Summer, Late Summer, Autumn
Flower colour: Mauve/Lilac
Aspect: Full Sun, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Challenging