Singing, swinging, and hunting for suburban smut.
Though most young people know nothing about plants, some facts are universal. Nasturtium is peppery, honeysuckle is sweet. Dock leaves cure nettle stings. If you are chased into a river by assailants, breathe through reeds to evade capture. Mistletoe was once for druids and is now for creeps at office parties. A buttercup under the chin somehow signifies whether or not you like butter. And of course, pampas grass is for swingers.
Everyone knows this. Pampas grass, cortaderia selloana, the great swishy reed that looks like a cross between a squirrel’s tail and a sandy explosion, is the herbaceous equivalent of a big red neon sign saying ‘WE ARE SWINGERS’. It means soft lighting and suburban kink. It means bums hoisted onto kitchen islands, Ann Summers underwear on a corner sofa, plastic prosecco flutes being knocked off garden furniture while the Skybox discreetly records that evening’s episode of Last Tango in Halifax. You plant it outside your house to signal to other swingers that you enjoy ‘the lifestyle’.
Yet during lockdown, I became convinced one of our longest held beliefs about suburban life was untrue. It was on one of those interminable walks through the estate at the back of our house, via the alleyways and cul-de-sacs, when I would look at the houses; look at the gardens. I’d think about the lives of the people who lived there and what their hopes and dreams were. It was an extraordinary time when we were granted new perspectives on life, and by the beginning of 2022, I had become convinced that a tuft of pampas grass in a front garden does not really signify that the owner is a swinger.
It just doesn’t make sense. As recently as 2017, I was reading that the wholesale market for the plant had absolutely crashed, for reputational reasons. The association between this lush, feathery grass and lush, feathery throw-pillows on a wipedown banquette had become too firmly embedded in our collective consciousness, purportedly thanks to ‘social media’. Demand had apparently tanked. And yet in lockdown, if you looked at interior design Instagram, as I did for hours and hours at a time, rooms were bedecked with the stuff. Accounts with names like ‘A Pampas Life’ were displaying its sensual curves as if nothing had happened.
I reached out to another niche corner of online horticulture, dried flower Instagram, for answers. Marina Bezgin opened her company, For Love of Pampas, in 2019 in Brooklyn. ‘During COVID, we saw people stuck in their homes eager to decorate their spaces – that’s when we saw the biggest uptick’. But the swinging though? ‘I think probably it was like that in Europe back in the 1970s,’ says Marina. ‘I’m not sure if pampas was ever considered connected with swinging in the USA.’
I resolved to get to the truth, by downloading a huge list of swingers’ clubs from the internet and emailing them all with the simple question: is this true, or not. The answers I received were greatly in tune with my own suspicions.
Vicky of Townhouse Swingers, based on the Wirral, was damning. ‘It may have been a thing in the 1970s, but we don’t rely on obscure foliage to find other swingers. We use the internet.’ Vikki from Le Boudoir Club in London believed it was an urban myth too. I asked her what plants she has at the club. ‘We don’t have real plants or flowers because the venue is rather like a casino and has no natural light. We do have a number of floral displays, mainly orchids, and what we call the Botanical Garden, which is made up of shrubs.’
Having found little confirmation from the British Confederation of Swingers, I decided to take another route of investigation. I knocked on the door of a house that’s near me where a large bush of pampas grass was in full bloom. The leaves of the lower bush rustled in the wind as the owner of the home came to the door. I gave the elderly man who owned the house my story and he nodded ruefully, drying his hands on a tea towel. He had heard the stories, but no, he wasn’t a swinger. Why didn’t he get rid of them? ‘It was there when we moved in and I can’t be bothered trying to dig it out,’ he said, then shrugged. I shrugged back.
As my investigation continued, I started to wonder: if everyone I’m speaking to is saying ‘no, no, no’, then where did this rumour even come from? An email from Cat, manager of a swingers’ bar in Stoke, made me sit up. ‘It’s probably just another urban myth propagated by Mariella Frostrup seeking a little extra publicity, and perhaps announcing in a “secret, not secret” way that she herself was/is a swinger.’ Mariella Frostrup? Voice-over artiste and celebrated TV presenter? Well, there was a tweet dating back to November 2011 in which she said: ‘Who knew that pampas grass plants are a signal to fellow swingers? Bought two and put them on my balcony. Neighbours have been swarming!’ It only got about 16 retweets – here’s a sign of how Twitter has grown – and it was picked up by every single UK newspaper.
I emailed her agent, but when I outlined Cat’s accusation that her client had propagated an urban myth and might actually like partner-swapping, I received no reply. No time to deal with weirdos asking her about swinging? Or a guilty conscience? I may not be best placed to answer this.
Frustrated by all avenues, conventional and unconventional, I began exploring as many theories as I could; a mission which somehow brought me to Fiona Davison, head of exhibitions at the Royal Horticultural Society, and a conversation about the origins of the modern British garden. She told me that the big inventions which brought about the gardening revolution in the 1960s were plastic and colour television: plastic because seedlings could be sold in cheap pots to customers, rather than as seeds, and therefore they could be planted straight in the ground in spring, rather than coaxed in warmed sheds over winter; colour television because Gardeners’ World began broadcasting in 1968 and that changed how our gardens looked – from bare ground to places of leisure.
‘Lots of things that determine our modern garden were introduced at this time, meaning people could be more ambitious,’ said Davison. ‘Foreign trips, exotic plants and outdoor eating also came into being at this time.’ This struck a chord. Metropolitan types view the suburbs with disdain. I think the pampas grass conspiracy – because that’s how I saw it, as a conspiracy – emerged from a certain jealousy, particularly at that historical moment. Look at them with all their new-fangled foliage out there in the ‘burbs. It must mean something. They must be at it.
And under Davison’s example, I could see how economics determined the form of our gardens. In the case of pampas grass, we had a new demand for cut flowers encouraged by European and American designers, but a very British aversion to growing them outside because of the swingers issue: a love of and fear of exoticism.
But it did seem as if Britain was – horticulturally at least – in a bind. I was delighted though to read that the landscape designer and author of A Greener Life, Jack Wallington, was offering a way forward and a way out. In a national newspaper he declared that he wanted to reinstate pampas grass and its reputation. ‘It really frustrates me as a garden designer that I can’t use this amazing plant. I can’t suggest this to clients because if I do, then they’ll be known as swingers. And they are such gorgeous, generous plants which are perfect for this big trend of dried cut flowers,’ he said.
I shared my theory with him on where I thought the urban myth came from, but I am not sure if he fully engaged with my culture war slant. ‘I wonder if there was just one absolutely humongous swingers’ party that was the best ever and there was pampas grass in the garden?’ he said. I had heard worse theories in my investigation to be honest, and it seemed churlish to argue as Wallington clearly knew what he was talking about. ‘Another thing with pampas grass is that the stems are like razor blades. It’s probably the last plant you’d want near a swingers’ party.’