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Liriope spp. Lour. 1790
pronounced: lih-RYE-oh-pee species
Liriope muscari (Decne.) L.H.Bailey 1929 cultivar
pronounced: lih-RYE-oh-pee muss-KAR-ee
Liriope spicata (Thunb.) Lour. 1790 cv.
pronounced: lih-RYE-oh-pee spik-KAR-tuh cultivar
common names: Border Grass, Lilyturf, Monkey Grass
Liriope is named for the mother of Narcissus in Greek mythology. She was a Boetian naiad, probably the daughter of one of the river gods. Cephissus, another river god, the son of Oceanus and Thethys, was the father of Narcissus. Narcissus was famed for his beauty. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Liriope was told by the blind seer Tiresias that he would have a long life, provided that he never recognized himself. His rejection, however, of the love of the nymph Echo (or, in an earlier version, of the young man Ameinias) drew upon him the vengeance of the gods. He fell in love with his own reflection in the waters of a spring, and pined away (or killed himself); the flower that bears his name sprang up where he died. This story may have derived from the ancient Greek superstition that it was unlucky, or even fatal, to see one’s own reflection. In Freudian psychiatry and psychoanalysis, the term narcissism denotes an excessive degree of self-esteem or self-involvement. Muscari probably means ‘musky’, from the Greek word for musk, μοσχος (moschos), which was in turn borrowed from the Persian mŭsk.
Several varieties of the Liriope genus, a grass-like ground cover very similar in use and appearance to its close cousins the mondo grasses (Ophiopogon), were introduced into the south-eastern USA from Japan and other Asian areas about 200 years ago. Many new varieties of Liriope have since been developed, and these are now widely used in landscaping in both tropical and temperate regions throughout the world. They are very fertile plants, and hybridize freely, so it is often difficult to know which species you are growing! Even plants labelled by nurseries are not above suspicion.
Liriope, commonly called Border Grass or Monkey Grass, is not a grass at all, but, like mondo grass, is a member of the asparagus (or, as some maintain, the lily) family. Compared to mondo grass, Liriope has thicker, more tuberous roots and is more cold-hardy. Like mondo grass it is very drought-tolerant, but grows best when the soil is kept moist and well-drained.
These are very useful landscape plants, because they survive in a wide range of environmental conditions. Most varieties will tolerate hot, dry conditions better than most shrubs, other groundcovers and grasses. Some, especially the variegated types, are good substitutes for grasses in the dense shade beneath trees. They can be established on quite steep slopes where it is impossible to establish and maintain grasses. They are used extensively by the Townsville City Parks and Gardens Department, and there are plantings of them under the banyans in front of the Dunoon development on the Picnic Bay sea front, where the pictures of Liriope muscari were taken. They appear to stand up well to the salt-laden atmosphere. There are two types of Liriope, clumping and spreading. Most varieties of Liriope muscari in common use are clumping varieties, but there are a few spreading ones.
Most of the commonly used varieties of Liriope spicata, are spreaders. They spread aggressively at a steady rate through the worst of soil and with practically no water. The spreading is by means of long underground rhizomes, which produce small bulbs that grow bigger as the plant ages. They will choke out many neighbouring plants. Both varieties produce inflorescences of small flowers coloured white or various shades of purple.
The individual plants grow in clumps that consist of many long, slender leaves 40 or so cm in length. The leaves of Liriope muscari itself are a bright glossy green. I believe the plants growing here in Picnic Bay to be a variegated cultivar of this, but I would not dare to suggest which of the many cultivars it is. Liriope grows best under slightly acidic soil conditions (pH around 6). The clumping varieties are well-behaved in the garden, tending to stay put with the clump slowly increasing in size. They can be used to add texture to perennial and shrub borders where minimal maintenance is required, such as around swimming pools.
New beds or borders for establishing Liriope muscari need to be properly prepared to ensure rapid establishment and to minimize future weed problems. The usual way to cope with the latter is to use what is known as the ‘stale seedbed’ technique. This consists of forcing weed growth before planting, with heavy fertilizing and watering for a couple of weeks, to encourage weed germination and growth. The weeds are then killed by spraying with a herbicide. After the weeds have died off, the ground is prepared for sowing, more fertilizer and water applied to encourage any remaining weeds to germinate. These should again be treated with herbicide. After this lot of weeds has died off, the ground will be ready for planting out the Liriope
It is a good idea to keep Liriope spicata in a pot, because it is so aggressive. Its runners are capable of going beneath a concrete path and coming up on the other side. There are some Liriope plants growing in the Picnic Bay mall that I suspect to be Liriope spicata.
There are places, however, where the spreading varieties can be very useful, where quick ground cover is required over a large area, such as a steep embankment created during, say, road construction, and where there are no other plants that might be choked out. Where areas of either the spreading or the clumping variety are established, the plants can be mown (with the mower at its highest setting) at the end of the dormant season, before new growth emerges. This will help to keep the area tidy.
The roots of Liriope are used in herbal medicine, being aphrodisiac, useful for chest complaints, and a stimulant.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2009
Page last updated 22nd December 2016