Melinis nerviglumis

(Franch.) Zizka
Poaceae ( Grass family)
Common name: bristle-leaved red top

Melinis nerviglumis

This pretty, tufted grass with its bluish leaves and shining pink inflorescences is an attractive addition to any border or wild garden. It is particularly effective when planted in wide swathes.

This perennial grass species grows in tufts of rolled blue-green leaves that reach about 250 mm in length. The flowers appear mostly in summer (September to April), and fade from purple through rose pink to white as they mature. They are densely covered with glistening, silky hairs that give the panicles a 'shining' appearance.

Melinis nerviglumis occurs in Africa south of the Sahara and in Madagascar.

Melinis, the genus name, is either derived from the Greek melas, meaning black, as the seeds of the grass are black, or from the Latin mel or honey, as some members of the genus give off a strong molasses smell; nerviglumis refers to the veins on the glume (bract at the base of the spikelets which bears the inflorescence).

There are 10 species of Melinis in southern Africa, including the well-known Natal red top, Melinis repens ( formerly Rhynchelytrum repens), which is common on roadsides and in disturbed areas. It is often confused with Melinis nerviglumis, but can be distinguished by the more open leaves.

Bristle-leaved red top grows in undisturbed veld in shallow, stony soil, usually on slopes where it may be locally dominant. It is not a good fodder grass because of its rolled leaves. The flowers are wind pollinated, and the light, fluffy seeds are scattered by wind. Birds make use of the fluffy seed heads as nesting material.

The attractive pinkish inflorescences can be used in flower arrangements.

Shimmering heads

Growing Melinis nerviglumis

Easily grown from seed collected in summer when the inflorescences have almost turned white, seedlings can be planted out in early spring. Plants already established in a garden will self-seed. Ready for planting 'plugs' can sometimes be obtained from selected nurseries. Once established, the grass needs little attention other than the removal of dead leaf matter at the end of winter (July and August). Bristle-leaved red top does not appear to be susceptible to pests and diseases..

South African indigenous grasses have been very under-utilized as gardening subjects. A strong trend towards 'wild gardening' has developed overseas, and additionally, grass species are increasingly being used both in groups or singly to enhance border plantings.This trend offers exciting opportunities for local gardeners as South Africa has many striking grass species that provide year-long interest in the garden, as well as providing shelter, food and nesting material for many species of birds and insects.
Bristle leaved red top is only one of many indigenous grass species with enormous potential for the South African garden.


  • KING, M. & OUDOLF, P. 1998. Gardening with grasses. Frances Lincoln, London.
  • GIBBS RUSSELL et al. 1990. Grasses of southern Africa. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 58.
  • VAN OUDTSHOORN, F. 1999. Guide to grasses of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.

Isabel Johnson
Natal National Botanical Garden
February 2003

To find out if SANBI has seed of this or other SA species, please email our seedroom.
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