This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, February 2012
Meadow Rice Grass - Paatiitii
There are four Microlaena grass species in New Zealand, and all are virtually unknown.
One is very small, rare and confined to North Auckland. It is Microlaena carsei with the flower spike growing to about 20cm, occasionally to 50cm tall, on damp stream banks in kauri forest. The largest in size, but also uncommon, is Microlaena polynoda or bamboo grass. It has jointed canes like very delicate, slender bamboo to 1.5m and grows in dry conditions frequently atop large boulders and rocky bluffs in lowland forests sporadically throughout the country. Considerably more common is Microlaena avenacea or ‘bush rice grass' growing to about a metre in semi-damp shady forest widespread throughout the country up to 1300m altitude.
Much the most common species is Microlaena stipoides or ‘meadow rice grass', yet despite being found in a large percentage of New Zealand lawns, it is still an unknown grass to most New Zealanders. It grows to about 80cm when flowering but the foliage stands perhaps 40cm tall if left uncut. Of course, in lawns it is constantly mown and whether mixed with exotic grass species or on its own, it provides an excellent drought-resistant, shade and frost-tolerant sward. It is at its best in sun or light shade, when left to form an unmown meadow with wind rippling across it.
It grows naturally on all the volcanic cones of Auckland but in most cases has been overwhelmed by kikuyu grass. Now that it is Auckland Council policy to remove the cattle and sheep from most of the cones, there is the dilemma of how to get rid of the kikuyu and what to replace it with.
For many years I have been suggesting to archaeologists that meadow rice grass is the plant to both preserve the form and outline of Maori pa sites, and provide a natural low-maintenance solution.
In his book "Wild plants in Auckland", botanist Alan Esler refers to Microlaena stipoides as the "most significant local grass ..... (which) lingered on into the 1970s in neat controllable swards on volcanic cones". He describes it as "an attractive mid-green, densely packed carpet that admits few weeds if managed properly. Alan should know as his own lawn is pure meadow rice grass (Microlaena) with a deep pile or sward which he maintains by keeping the mower blade raised higher than the normal mower would have it.
Both Alan and I have advised Auckland Council staff about the suitability of Microlaena stipoides for its future management of the volcanic cones, and it appears it will become the favoured plant for most of their management regimes.
One of meadow rice grass's attributes is the tight short rhizome of each plant, depending on the amount of light available- unlike the rhizome of kikuyu which seems to travel onwards forever in bright light but stops short in shade. Its growth habit means meadow rice grass develops into a particularly dense mat which, if left unmown, forces each plant to grow a new vegetative plantlet at some of its nodes to recolonize whenever it touches the ground.
Microlaena stipoides is a superb substitute for weeds. All those difficult-to-control areas can be weeded, mulched and sown with meadow rice grass seed to provide a natural defence against the reinvasion that inevitably occurs. In fact, summer is a great time to begin as there is still seed on the Microlaena and help is at hand to get rid of the weeds, with Forest & Bird running a campaign in Titirangi with advice on what your weeds are, how to eradicate them and most importantly how to dispose of them - not over the back fence into a reserve!
Once you have got on top of your weeds, create your own low-maintenance meadow with Microlaena stipoides.
For more information on weed control:
In Titirangi, Forest and Bird contacts are Janie Vaughan 817 9262 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to identify your weed try the website www.weedbusters.co.nz.
Auckland Council is also keen to help with weed control, so give them a call, or go to http://www.arc.govt.nz/environment/biosecurity/pest-plants/
Weedfree Waitakere, 826 4276, at 1 Olympic Place, New Lynn is another group able to assist, and they have novel ways of getting rid of your weeds such as feeding Arundo donax to the elephants in the zoo.