Muhly grass turns it on in October
Posted: Tuesday, October 13, 2009 8:01 pm
It is no secret that ornamental grasses are a highlight of autumn. While some are attractive the warm months through and even well into winter, it is in fall that the flowering heads of most of them shine.
Peaking in excitement and beauty in October is one grass that, however, is almost a nonentity the rest of the year. It is well worth it for two months of (what can you say?) spectacular bloom from mid-September onward until the excesses of late fall weather batter it to pieces.
Muhlenbergia capillaris, commonly named pink muhly or hair-awn muhly and sometimes corrupted to “mule grass,” breaks out of the ground in April with wispy, wimpy, thin stems of no notice. They are, in fact, so fine that the plant may be placed toward the front of a bed or border and used as a scrim (“scrim:” a semi-transparent curtain employed in theater to lightly obscure the set) and allow view of other features behind.
One of our clumps of pink muhly is thus sited, right in the front of a rock garden where its three-foot height is transparent enough to view even a low-growing groundcover of blue plumbago and other plants in the vicinity.
The stems grow taller and taller, again without much attraction, until early September, when they begin, at three feet, innocuously manufacturing skinny heads of potential bloom. These elongate for a couple of weeks before they almost cautiously unfold and expand. Then, some day in mid-September, there the thing is, backlighted by a late afternoon shaft of sunlight, having exploded seemingly overnight into the most sumptuous pink cotton candy froth of color. It is a prime example of the whole exceeding the sum of its parts.
Even in full bloom, the mass of opalescent flowering yet remains translucent enough not to obscure any other ingredients to its rear. The plant in the rock garden is situated fortuitously so that visitors arriving late in the afternoon catch it backlighted as they alight from their vehicles in the driveway. It commands more attention at this time of year, at least when the sun is shining, than any other thing in the garden.
Pink muhly is said to be questionably winter hardy here, though ours has been in situ for several years. (Don’t forget global warming.) Nevertheless, I don’t cut it back until new growth is under way in spring. The best assurance one has of getting it to live over is excellent drainage. Plant it in an elevated mix of one-half gravel or sand.
It is best to start with a three-gallon size plant if you can afford it. It will perform aplenty the first year, while a one-gallon specimen might take two or three years to gain enough for a show. Keep in mind the importance of lighting on your plant, and site it where the sun will backlight it at least part of the day.
Pink muhly is native to sandy areas to our south, but it keeps moving its range north where drainage suits it. Yankee gardeners would give their eye teeth to be able to grow it.
There are a number of other species of muhly grass, but this one has it over them 10 ways to Sunday. Local nurseries have been selling it here for a few years. With any plant whose hardiness is questionable, it is best to plant it in spring, so as to have a whole growing season to gain root establishment.
From Poor Willie’s Almanack — Two months with a plant like this is ample recompense.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 10.13.09