Thamnochortus fraternus Pillans

Family: Restionaceae (Cape Reed Family)

Thamnochortus fratenus

This is a striking and attractive grass-like member of the large restio family. The plants are very uniform in height and the floral bracts are a rich red colour for about six months of the year, before, during and after flowering from the beginning of autumn to early summer.

Male  plants in flower.Thamnochortus fraternus is a very neat tufted plant, up to 0.7 m in height, with a diameter of about 20 cm at ground level and about 80 cm at the crown. When the plants are young they produce some finely divided juvenile branches. The mature plants have simple stems with long arching male inflorescences and quite stiff long and narrow female flower spikes. Like all restios the male and female flowers are on separate plants. The flowers themselves are very small and insignificant. The rich red-brown colouring is produced by the bracts which surround the flowers. The flowering season is in autumn to early winter (May - June) and the small winged seeds are produced in early summer (October - November). The plants produce a large amount of seeds, however, as with most other species of the genus Thamnochortus, most of these seeds are not viable. Thamnochortus fraternus is not a re-sprouter and is killed by fire. The seed is stored in the upper layer of the soil and produces the new generation of plants after a fire.

Thamnochortus fraternus is found on limestone outcrops or on well drained limestone slopes as well as flat areas from Cape Point to the mouth of the Gouritz River. It is not an endangered species as it is locally common and often dominates the vegetation. The plants grow mostly in large or small groups, looking very dark brown and providing quite a contrast with the more olive-green vegetation around them.

The family name of Restionaceae is derived from 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 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 un-branched stems are sometimes used for thatching, while the species with branched stems are used as brooms.

Growing Thamnochortus fraternus

This restio has not been long in cultivation but, as with many other fynbos plants from limestone soils, it is easy to grow and adapts well to a garden environment. It prefers full sun and needs a well-drained soil, and is quite happy in dry conditions, although it will look more attractive if watered a few times a week. It is not known how it will react to cold northern hemisphere climates. The male plants are very attractive on their own as accent plants, the female plants are less striking. This species is ideal for landscaping as the plants are very uniform in height and growth habit and look very good in groups. It would look very good in windswept sea-side gardens as well as in more formal landscaped areas around office blocks. It will also look attractive in a pot on a patio or terrace.

The plants are best grown from seed, which has a fairly good germination rate when treated with smoke or 'Instant Smoke Plus' seed primer. It must be taken into account that about half of the seeds will not be viable, so the seed will have to be sown in an even layer, covering the soil in the seed pan. This species should be grown in full sun, in a well-drained soil and have plenty of air movement around it. 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 standard organic 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.

The plants will initially be a bit slow to grow, but will have formed a handsome plant and should flower 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 at the outside part of the plant.


  • Dorrat-Haaksma, E.& Linder, H. P., 2000, Restios of the Fynbos, The Botanical Society of South Africa.
  • 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, Number 13.
  • Brown, N. Jamieson, H. & Botha, P., 1998, Grow Restios, Kirstenbosch Gardening Series, National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.

Hanneke Jamieson
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
March 2002

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