- Division: Magnoliophyta (flowering plants)
- Class: Liliopsida (monocotyledons)
- Order: Poales
- Family: Restionaceae
- Genus: Elegia (formerly Chrondropetalum)
- Species: elephantinum and tectorum
In spite of their common name, Cape rushes aren't in the rush family (Juncaceae) at all. Nor are they true grasses, or sedges. These rush-like plants are restios (family Restionaceae). Restios come from the Southern Hemisphere, and these striking specimens hail from coastal South Africa, where they often grow in marshes. Cape rushes are also a feature of the biodiversity hotspot known as the Cape fynbos (FINE-bose) region. (The term fynbos comes from the Afrikaans words for "fine bush," a reference to the low stature of most plants that grow there.)
The leafless, somewhat bamboo-like, stems of a Cape rush grow nearly vertically. At the nodes, papery brown sheaths (bracts) drop off to leave dark bands. Coarse, colonizing roots anchor the plant in the ground, but a network of finer roots with long root hairs absorbs water and nutrients. Individual plants are either male or female, but they both produce similar, brown flowers at the tips in summer. Large Cape rush E. elephantinum grows in dense clumps that can grow to five feet tall and—fountain-like—spread to six feet wide.
Water-smart Californians love Cape rushes for their low water requirements, but they are versatile plants that will also grow in standing water, in full sun or part shade. They are hardy to 25 degrees Fahrenheit. In colder places, gardeners have good luck growing them in containers and moving them inside for the winter. Large Cape rush provides an architectural feel and makes a lovely focal point in the garden. If you grow a Cape rush, don't prune it—you'll ruin the new growth. Instead, take your time and clip out the old, brown culms individually, taking care not to damage the newer, green stems.
At the Zoo, see large Cape rush at Reptile Walk and at Africa Rocks. At the Safari Park, large Cape rush grow near the bat house, in African Outpost, and in the South African Plains (which you can see from the tram tour).