This undervalued wildflower – a BC native plant – is ideal for a moist bog, stream, rock or container garden
British Columbia has the richest collection of wildflowers in Canada and one of the finest in North America. Yet few of these species have made it into our gardens despite being very attractive and relatively easy to grow. One such plant is the fringed grass of Parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata), a widespread species with a better-known British Columbia and Old World relative, the northern grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris).
Parnassias or grass of Parnassus species are a small but widely distributed group of herbaceous perennials known around the northern hemisphere. Surprisingly, they are not grasses at all. They grow from a stout rootstock from which extend numerous fibrous roots. The rootstock has short branches so that the growth form is somewhat mat-like. Several rosettes or clusters of leaves lie near the surface of the ground similar to the growth form of some native violets. The glossy-green deciduous leaves have modestly long stalks that expand into broad kidney- to heart-shaped blades.
Nearly naked flower stems rise erect 15 to 30 cm (6 to 12 in.) tall from the leaf mass, usually bearing a single leaflet about halfway up. Bright-white, open-faced blooms top the end of the stalk. Flowers occur singly and have five petals with greenish or yellowish veins. A distinctive and attractive feature of this species is the fringed hairs lining the lower half of each petal. These ornaments distinguish it from the commonly occurring northern grass of Parnassus. There are five fertile stamens that alternate with the petals and surround an oval pistil at the centre. There are also five sterile stamens reputed to produce a honey-like scent and attract pollinating flies. Flowers appear in midsummer at lower elevations but not until August or September in the high mountains. Small yellowish seeds mature in a pale capsule in late summer and early fall.
Fringed grass of Parnassus is a species of moist to wet sites across the full range of elevations from lowland to alpine heights. The typical habitat in British Columbia is a moist, even wet, meadow with limited competition from grasses and shrubs.
Fringed grass of Parnassus can be grown readily from seed. It would seem an excellent candidate for full sun or light shade in a moist rock garden, a bog or stream garden and for growing in containers.
Seeds are occasionally available from specialist sources, such as the Alpine Garden Society of the UK, and possibly local alpine- and rock-garden clubs. Once you have plants in your own garden, you can collect seeds in the late summer and fall and sow immediately on the surface of a peaty soil. Cover lightly or not at all, place in a lightly shaded spot and keep moist by watering from beneath. Germination may take several (up to six) months. Let the plants grow until the following fall when they can be transplanted (five-leaf stage) into their final home, which should have slightly acid rich soil. Once established the root crowns may be divided immediately after bloom and spread to new sites.
Cheyenne peoples made a tea of powdered leaves to perk up lethargic babies and calm upset stomachs. In Utah the Gosiute Indians used a poultice or wash of the plant to treat venereal diseases.
Be an adventurous gardener and experiment with our delightful fringed grass of Parnassus. See if you can help make this native British Columbian wildflower more widely known to gardeners around the world.
The following plants are hardy to the zone numbers indicated (view our climate zone chart):
• Parnassia fimbriata (fringed grass of Parnassus) – zone 2/3
• Parnassia palustris (northern grass of Parnassus) – zone 2/3