Restio dispar


Restionaceae (Cape reed family)

Female inflorescences of Restio dispar

This large, sturdy, Cape reed will introduce a true autumn feeling in your garden with its striking orange-brown, female inflorescences during April, May and June.

Sheath of Restio disparRestio dispar is a medium to large, reed-like plant, which can grow to a height of 2 m when grown in a reasonably fertile soil with the normal amount of water given in a garden. The plants have strong, upright stems and grow in a more or less tufted form with spreading rhizomes. When mature, the plants can reach a diameter of about 1 m at ground level after three years' growth. The stems branch from about halfway up with a large amount of long inflorescences at the top of the branches of the female plants.

In contrast to most reed species, the female plants of R. dispar are much more showy, sturdy and larger than the male plants. The male plants are slightly smaller than the female plants, the inflorescences are inconspicuous and the whole plant looks a bit messy and weak. However, plants of both sexes are strong-growing and can easily reach an age of more than one to seven years. The main growth period is at the end of the Cape winter (August-November).

Restio dispar is a true Cape reed and occurs only in a fairly small area on the southwestern mountains in the Cape Floristic Region from Bainskloof to Hermanus. The plants are generally found along streams or amongst rocks, often forming large stands in deeper soils at lower altitudes, from 5 to 1 200 m. The plants should be grown with a regular amount of irrigation and are suited to cultivation in gardens in the Southern Hemisphere. As with other reed species, the roots are sensitive to a combination of frost and wet soil and in the Northern Hemisphere should be grown in pots.

The family name of Restionaceae refers to the Latin restis, which means cord or rope and alludes to the use of the plants in southern Africa. The more than 400 species in about 40 genera of the Restionaceae family occur in the winter rainfall regions of South Africa and Australia, with outliers in Africa, Madagascar, Indo-China and Chile. The species name of dispar refers to the dissimilar or unequal appearance of the male and female plants.

Male flowersLike the other reed species, the male and female flowers are on different plants and both are small and insignificant. The plants flower during late April and early May. The male flowers are greenish yellow and easily visible, whereas the female flowers are white and hidden deeply within the large orange-brown bracts, except for the few days the plants are in full flower and waiting to be pollinated.

Female flower The plants are wind pollinated. The wind distributes the pollen from the free-hanging anthers of the male flowers to the female inflorescence where the large bracts catch the pollen from the air and funnel it towards the female flowers. Sometimes bees are present, but always around the male plants, where they collect the pollen.

The seeds ripen in small capsules, three seeds to a capsule. When the seeds are ripe, the capsule opens up and dispels the seeds. The seeds are ready in November and are very pretty, fairly large for a species of restio, triangular in shape and silvery blue-green.

Uses and cultural aspects
The economic use of plants of this family has been limited, as the plants contain a large amount of tannin and so are grazed only as a last resort by cattle and sheep. The species that have simple, unbranched stems are sometimes used for thatching, while the species with branched stems are used as brooms or (besems). The plants have been introduced to horticulture and are available from specialized nurseries.

Growing Restio dispar

Restio disparThis species is best used in a fairly large garden as a plant in a large border, planted behind a group of smaller plants. The plants fit in with fynbos plants, other indigenous South African plants as well as any other plants in a garden. They can be used as medium-sized shrubs and provide the touch of grass-like plants now so fashionable in landscaping. It is useful for group plantings in large landscaping projects. The plants are especially suited to planting on a slope.

The plants are best grown from seed, which has a good germination rate and germinates even better if treated with smoke or 'Instant Smoke Plus' seed primer. This species must be grown in full sun, prefers a well-drained soil and plenty of air movement. The plants adapt to a large variety of soil types. The best time for planting restios is at the beginning of the rainy season, as the plants need regular watering during the first six weeks to two months after planting. After this initial period the plants can survive with a little additional watering but grow better with a normal garden watering regime. They may be fed with organic seaweed-based fertilizers, or by sprinkling the surrounding soil with a small amount of ammonium sulfate during the growing season. Restios will respond to regular watering by showing more robust growth, but they are essentially plants which are adapted to a long, dry season.

This is a fast-growing species that will be about 1 m high one year after sowing and will have formed a handsome plant three years after sowing. The plants produce a new growth flush in the centre of the plant every year. The individual stems start to deteriorate during the third year but by that time already two new flushes of growth will have appeared for the yearly renewal of the plant. This governs the maintenance of the plant, which really only needs a regular removal of the brown, dead stems on at the outside part of the plant.


  • Andrews, S. & McClintock, D. 1982. Notes on Restio suberticellatus. The Plantsman 37: 230-233.
  • Brown, N., Jamieson, H. & Botha, P. 1998. Grow restios. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series, National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
  • Dorrat-Haaksma, E.& Linder, H.P. 2000. Restios of the Fynbos. The Botanical Society of South Africa, Cape Town.
  • Linder, H.P. 1985. A conspectus of the African species of Restionaceae. Bothalia 15: 3, 4.
  • Linder, H.P. 1991. A review of the southern African Restionaceae. Contributions from the Bolus Herbarium 13.

Hanneke Jamieson
Kirstenbosch NBG
April 2

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