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Ehrharta erecta

Ehrharta erecta; Panic Veldtgrass, Lamarck’s Ehrharta; Skadu-ehrharta (Afrikaans)

I first learnt of this plant when the late Ivor Migdoll asked me to show it to him, as he wanted to rear a butterfly on this particular grass. I had to go to the then Natal Herbarium to see what it looked like as a dried specimen, and then hopefully, I would be able to go and find the grass in a suitable local habitat. Luckily, a specimen sheet in the herbarium told me that it had been collected in Burman Bush, so we went looking and found the grass in a shady clearing in the forest, under trees but getting some sunlight in the early to mid-mornings. This clump-forming grass is a soft, delicate- looking but tough species that grows to about 40cm tall when in flower. The flowerheads are upright but as they mature, they bend over with the weight of the flowers and seeds. These plants produce flowers during much of the year on the coast and if you provide adequate moisture, the plant will flower for an extended period. This is a widespread, palatable grass that grows in open edges and in forest clearings, from the coast to the Drakensberg. It is frost-tolerant but will die back in the dry winter months if not growing in a damp spot. I have plants in my garden that die back but re-sprout in the spring. Panic Veldtgrass can become weedy and will pop up in pots and containers metres away from where you would see mature specimens. (It is considered an invasive species in other parts of the world like the USA, Australian, New Zealand and China to name a few.) It is a good landscaping grass, forming sweeps of delicate, palish-green leaves. The grass feels soft to the touch and sits gently in a herbaceous border or understorey planting. I have it as a container plant because along with the Broad-leaved Bristle Grass - Setaria megaphylla, it is favoured by my dogs as a source of roughage and from time to time they go looking for these grasses to eat. This grass does not want to be trampled or mown at all. All I do is, in the middle of winter, when all the seeds have been scattered, I trim off the old flowerheads and dead leaves. On the coast, new shoots begin to appear in early August, as the Spring days become appreciably longer, but further inland where there is frost, the new growth only appears as the days become warmer and rain has returned. For me, the virtue of this grass is that it is the larval food plant for many of our local butterfly genera. A selection of these are the Grassveld Sylph, Evening Browns, Bush Brown, Autumn Widows, Widows and Hillside Browns - buy yourself a butterfly book or Google the names to see more detail about the butterflies. As far as birds go, the local forest seedeaters like Green Twinspot, African Firefinch, Grey Waxbill and Swee Waxbill, will all feed on the seeds of this plant. I have also found ants carrying the seeds to their nests, but I have not yet discovered for what reason they do this. Don’t panic, this is an easy grass to propagate - either split off some rooted pieces from the parent clump or grow some seed in a seedling tray with well-composted soil. The seeds are ready to sow when, if you rub the seed head between your fingers, the seeds fall into the tray or the palm of your hand. Lightly cover the seed with some sand and keep the tray in a warm spot with dappled sunlight. The seeds will germinate, depending on the ambient air and soil temperature, in about 10-14 days.

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