By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
The whisper of grass swaying against itself in the wind may not be as intoxicating as the pitter patter of little feet, but it surely comes close. Eriophorum cotton grass is a member of the sedge family that is native to arctic and temperate zones of Europe and North America. It makes and elegant addition to the landscape in moist acidic soils.
Common cotton grass is widespread across Europe, Siberia and many other wetland and boggy habitats. It is a wild plant that colonizes cranberry bogs, marshes and other moist areas. Considered a weed in some agricultural sites, it is able to reproduce by its prolific airy cotton grass seeds or by roots. Get informed with the facts about cotton grass so you can see if it is right for your gardening needs.
Eriophorum cotton grass can grow up to 12 inches in height. It is a slender creeping grass with flat leaf blades that bear rough margins. The plant is riparian and can even grow in up to 2 inches of water. Flowers are at the terminal ends of stalks and appear as fluffy balls of cotton – hence the common name. They are either white or coppery and have slender bristles. The genus name comes from the Greek work “erion” which means wool and “phoros” which means bearing.
Cotton grass seeds are long and narrow, approximately 3 times as long as wide, and either brown or copper in color. Each seed bears numerous white bristles that catch the wind and help the seed adhere to favorable germination ground. The bristles are actually the modified sepals and petals of tiny flowers.
Common cotton grass prefers moist soil with high acidity. Common cotton grass will grow well in loam, sand or even clay soils. However, it thrives in peaty soil and boggy locations and is a good choice for growing around a water feature or pond. Just be careful to cut the blooms off before seeds mature or you might have patches of the sedge in every moist nook of your landscape.
Another bit of interesting cotton grass info is its ability to grow in water. Place the plants in a 1-gallon pot with 3 inches of water. The plant needs little extra nutrition in boggy soil but in container situations, feed once per month with a diluted plant food during the growing season.
Elsewhere cotton grass needs a full sun site with plenty of water, as the soil must be kept consistently wet. Choose a south- or west-facing exposure for best lighting.
Some shelter from battering winds is a good idea to keep the plant from getting shredded and ruining the appearance. Leaf blades will change color in autumn but remain persistent. Divide the plant in spring every few years to prevent the center clump from dying out.
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Common cotton-grass © Beth Newman/Plantlife
Cottongrass is a member of the sedge family and so not technically a grass at all. It thrives in the harshest of environments where it can take advantage of the lack of competition. After fertilisation in early summer, the small, unremarkable green and brown flowers develop distinctive white seed-heads that resemble tufts of cotton. Combined with its ecological suitability to bogs, these characteristics give rise to the plant's alternative name, bog cotton.
It is common in bogs throughout the UK and Ireland. It likes open, wet, peaty ground and so is likely to indicate areas best avoided when out for a walk.
This wild plant is common in its preferred habitat.
Common cotton-grass © Beth Newman/Plantlife
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|Family:||Cyperaceae (sy-peer-AY-see-ee) (Info)|
|Genus:||Eriophorum (er-ee-OH-for-um) (Info)|
|Species:||angustifolium (an-gus-tee-FOH-lee-um) (Info)|
|Synonym:||Eriophorum polystachion var. angustifolium|
Ornamental Grasses and Bamboo
Very high moisture needs suitable for bogs and water gardens
USDA Zone 4a: to -34.4 °C (-30 °F)
USDA Zone 4b: to -31.6 °C (-25 °F)
USDA Zone 5a: to -28.8 °C (-20 °F)
USDA Zone 5b: to -26.1 °C (-15 °F)
USDA Zone 6a: to -23.3 °C (-10 °F)
USDA Zone 6b: to -20.5 °C (-5 °F)
USDA Zone 7a: to -17.7 °C (0 °F)
USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)
May be a noxious weed or invasive
This plant is said to grow outdoors in the following regions:
Fuquay Varina, North Carolina
Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania
On Aug 11, 2014, Careywood360 from Careywood, ID (Zone 5a) wrote:
Prairie Moon Nursery has seeds of this plant for sale. $2.00 for a 250 seed packet.
On Mar 12, 2013, MtnMam from Emmett, ID wrote:
As of 03-2013, Musser Forest has Cotton Grass, "eriophorum augustifolium" as potted plants. They can't ship some potted plants into my state, so I'm on the hunt too.
A beautiful native plant with grass type foliage and fluffy heads of white cotton-like flowers.
The wool used to be used for stuffing pillows and to make candle wicks. It is very hardy and can often be seen on Scottish moors.
Little maintenance is required. Trim just above the water surface after foliage has died back in the Autumn to tidy.
We currently do not ship this product to Scottish Highlands and islands, Isle of Man, Channel Islands, Isle of Scilly and Northern Ireland.
This item maybe purchased and collected from your nearest store.
Bog Cotton, Benwee Head, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey
" data-medium-file="gard-2022/1528/image_gibW42Iymuu.jpg?w=300" data-large-file="gard-2022/1528/image_gibW42Iymuu.jpg?w=580" /> Bog Cotton, Benwee Head, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey
I was standing in the middle of the bog that covers Benwee Head on the Children of Lir Loop Walk in one of the most scenic places in Mayo talking to a local man as he put in a late evening shift saving the turf.
My eyes followed the flowing sea of white tufts quivering in the gentle breeze all the way down the hill, to the cliff edge, where the Bog Cotton appeared to almost join with the puffy cumulus clouds set against the deep blue sky over Broadhaven Bay.
Only the calm Atlantic waters of Broadhaven shimmering in the late evening sunshine broke the perfect symmetry between the white clouds and the fluffy cotton heads swaying in the breeze on the bog that covers Benwee Head (An Bhinn Bhuí) which is part of the Children of Lir Loop Walk.
“It’s good for nothing – if it was any use it would be all gone by now,” the turf-saver quipped, eyeing the acres of fluffy white bog cotton swaying in the late May sunshine, as our conversation turned to the possible uses for Bog Cotton.
I knew from a previous conversation with an old farmer many years ago that he was only partly right. Today, bog cotton is considered useless, but in days gone by it was never wasted by the farming community.
As late as 100 years ago, Bog Cotton had a variety of uses.
" data-medium-file="https://ballinanews882041843.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/31417-bog-cotton-mayo2.jpg?w=300" data-large-file="https://ballinanews882041843.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/31417-bog-cotton-mayo2.jpg?w=580" src="https://ballinanews882041843.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/31417-bog-cotton-mayo2.jpg" /> The Bog Cotton on Benwee Head, Co Mayo, creates an almost perfect symmetry with the fluffy white clouds over Broadhaven Bay. Photo: Anthony Hickey
It was used as a feather substitute in stuffing a pillow or other clothes. Sheep, cattle, and geese are also partial to it tender stem and in harder times it came in handy as a fodder supplement.
Bog Cotton mixed with 25% wool or cotton made a fabric that was used in the manufacture of cloth, carpets, and roofing felt.
However, unlike the cotton is grown in the USA and other hot countries for use in the textile industry our native plant belonging to the family Cyperaceae is not strong enough lacking the tensile strength to justify any commercial use nowadays.
Bog Cotton poetry
Bog Cotton has inspired some of Ireland’s foremost poets over the centuries.
In her beautiful poem, Bog Cotton On The Red Bog, Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845–1909) evokes the beauty of the bog as seen by the birds as they fly overhead.
O Strong-winged birds from over the moorland dark,
On this June day, what have you seen?
Where have you been?”
Where, oh! where
The golden yellow asphodel makes its boggy home,
And far and near,
Spreading in broad bands of silvery silky foam
O’er the moorland drear,
The slender-stemmed bog cotton bends in waves of light,
Shaking out its shining tufts for its own delight,
There, oh! there
We have been.
" data-medium-file="https://ballinanews882041843.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/e5e88-bog-cotton-mayo3.jpg?w=300" data-large-file="https://ballinanews882041843.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/e5e88-bog-cotton-mayo3.jpg?w=580" src="https://ballinanews882041843.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/e5e88-bog-cotton-mayo3.jpg" /> Bog Cotton growing near Muingdoran, Geesala, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Born in Limerick, Charlotte Grace O’Brien, a great humanitarian, wrote the poem after a visit to Foynes in June 1895. She was the daughter of William Smith O’Brien (1803–1864), Conservative MP for County Limerick, and leader of the Young Irelander movement.
Belfast-poet, Michael Longley, draws inspiration from Desert Flowers by Keith Douglas (1920–1944) in his poem, Bog Cotton.
Let me make room for bog cotton, a desert flower –
Keith Douglas, I nearly repeat what you were saying
When you apostrophised the poppies of Flanders
And the death of poetry there: that was in Egypt
Among the sandy soldiers of another war.
(It hangs on by a thread, denser than thistledown,
Reluctant to fly, a weather vane that traces
The flow of cloud shadow over monotonous bog –
And useless too, though it might well bring to mind
The plumpness of pillows, the staunching of wounds,
Rags torn from a petticoat and soaked in water
And tied to the bushes around some holy well
As though to make a hospital of the landscape –
Cures and medicines as far as the horizon
Which nobody harvests except with the eye.)
You saw that beyond the thirstier desert flowers
There fell hundreds of thousands of poppy petals
Magnified to blood stains by the middle distance
Or through the still unfocused sights of a rifle —
And Isaac Rosenberg wore one behind his ear.
" data-medium-file="https://ballinanews882041843.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/17226-bog-cotton-mayo.jpg?w=300" data-large-file="https://ballinanews882041843.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/17226-bog-cotton-mayo.jpg?w=580" src="https://ballinanews882041843.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/17226-bog-cotton-mayo.jpg" /> Tufts of Bog Cotton swaying in a gentle May breeze in Muingdoran, Geesala, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Born in Belfast in 1939, Michael Longley has published nine collections of poetry including Gorse Fires (1991), winner of the Whitbread Poetry Award. His most recent collection is A Hundred Doors (2011). His Collected Poems appeared in 2006.
Keith Douglas was an English poet noted for his war poetry during the Second World War who died, aged 24, during the Normandy landings to free Europe from the tyranny of Hitler’s Germany.
A native plant
Bog Cotton (Eriophorum angustifolium), commonly known as Cottongrass, and Ceannbhán in Irish, is a native plant and flowers from April to May.
It comprises four species that grow in Ireland although only two grow in bogland.
Common Cotton-grass is the most widespread in Mayo and grows in bogs and wetlands. Hares’ tail Cotton-grass grows in drier parts of the bog and is one of the main colonisers of drained cutaway bogland.
Common Cotton-grass has cotton-like flower heads on a single stalk which makes it different to the Hare’s tail cotton grass which has a single tuft, like the tail of a hare.
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