MUHLENBERGIA CAPILLARIS (Lam.) Trin.
By Thelma Glover
No other group of plants has become more popular in gardens lately than ornamental grasses. Considering their simple beauty and equally sunny dispositions it’s easy to understand why these plants are in such demand. The abundant and diverse species of beautiful prairie grasses from America’s heartland has been a source generously tapped by nurserymen, but it is our own Georgia beauty, pink muhly, that has captured the hearts of all who have seen it. Regally erect and fashionably narrow the lush green spikes of this incredibly gorgeous eastern native wait patiently all summer to proudly announce its claim to fame. Large soft silky plumes the color of pink cotton candy emerge to float gracefully in loose, airy, panicles that drift like billows of smoke against the clear autumn sky. When seen blooming in mass in south Georgia meadows, It is truly a remarkable sight to behold. A cultivar of pink muhly (the first) has just been released named ‘Regal Mist’. Someone must have find a way to make it bloom much longer since it would have been some challenge to make it more beautiful.
Like all grasses, pink muhly, belongs to the large and widely distributed grass family (Poaceae). The most economically important family in the plant kingdom, it supplies a substantial amount of food for man and animals. Muhlenbergia, one of the largest genera in this family, is named in honor of Giotthilf H.E. Muhlengerg (1753-1815), a minister, as well a a pioneer American botanist of German extraction whose family brought the Lutheran religion to Pennsylvania in the early part of the 18th century. Pink muhly, descriptive of the inflorescence color and a corruption of the generic name, is just one of the many aliases of this species. It’s frequently called hair awn grass, awn muhly and gulf muhly and it’s affectionately called sweet grass along the low country of the Carolinas and Georgia where for generations it has been gathered for basketry crafts that are marketed in Charleston and Savannah and sold around the world.
Description: Pink muhly is a tufted hardy perennial grass with narrow rush like foliage less than 4 mm wide and 2-4’ tall. The erect stems are semi-evergreen, remaining green well into winter in Georgia, turning a lovely shade of pale tan as the winter progresses and it begins to go dormant. They remain erect until they are cut back or until the new foliage emerges in early spring. The soft, airy, pink flowers begin to appear in late August or early September and hang on limber, very open panicles that are easily swayed by the slightest breeze. The flowers bloom for at least two months and in mild winters show some color until late in November. This species is so similar morphologically to M. expansa and M. filipes that many botanist lump the three together as one species while others consider M. expansa as a separate species and M. filipes as a variety of M. capillaris. Capillaris is more widely distributed listed as growing north into New England and west to Kansas and Texas. The other two are more prevalent on the coastal plain.
Culture: Like most perennials pink muhly is best planted in the fall (October in Georgia). There is no problem planting it in the early spring or any time as long as it is watered until established. It’s happiest planted in average soil in full sun but will tolerate light shade. It’s very drought tolerant, but makes itself right at home in wet soil also. It makes a nice addition to the winter landscape so it’s not necessary to cut it back until early March. To get rid of the old foliage cut it to within inches of the crown and new fresh green foliage will emerge in the early spring. Being a clumper and not a runner, aggression is not a problem. However the clumps can grow several feet wide making division necessary every few years if it’s not planted in a sufficiently large spot. The clumps can be dug up and hacked apart easily. This is best done in the fall or early spring. There is no problem with pests or diseases.
Propagation: The seeds of pink muhly ripen fast immediately after flowering ceases. The seeds collected in early November in l997 at the DeKalb College Botanical Garden germinated readily after an eight week moist stratification. Seeds collected later in November and December did not do so well. Stratification is probably not necessary, but it makes seeds germinate more evenly and usually in higher percentages. Each spikelet contains only one seed making it necessary to collect enough to assure there are many viable seeds. Sow the tiny seeds thickly. Germination occurs in about a week and the seedlings grow quickly. When they are two or three inches tall spoon them out in small clumps and transplant into small pots. With regular watering and liquid fertilizer the clumps will rapidly fill out and be ready to transplant into the garden. Division of mature clumbs is an easy way to propagate pink muly also. Clumps can easily be cut into many pieces as long as there are a few roots left in each division. Divisions can be replanted in pots or in the garden. Remember to water these until the roots become established again.
Garden uses: Massed on a bank or island border pink muhly makes a perfect, no maintenance blooming groundcover. It’s a terrific spiky accent in herbaceous or mixed beds and borders with the fall blooming blue asters and yellow composites. Planted with our native Bacchrus whose white fluffy heads appear at the same time would make a lovely property screen your neighbors would envy. Combine it in an all grass bed with other fall blooming grasses. It is especially nice with the variegated cultivars of Miscanthus (maiden grass), and Cortaderia (Pampas Grass), and the blue green foliage of Helictotrichon (Blue Oat Grass) and Panicum virgatum (Switch Grass). A wonderful combination would be pink muhly with bamboo muhly (a texas native which may not be totally cold hardy in the Atlanta area) whose foliage is larger, much lighter green and not spiky at all. Dressed in their winter coats the combination of pink muhly and Chasmanthium(river oats) makes a interesting sight.
Kurt Bluemel, Inc. Carolina Nurseries Plant Delight Nursery 2740 Greene Lane 9241 Sauls Rd. 739 Gaillard Rd Baldwin, MD 21013-9523 Raleigh, NC 27603 Moncks Corner, S.C. 29461 (800) 498-1560 (919)772-4794 (800) 845-2065
Georgia Perimeter College Native Plant Botanical Garden
3251 Panthersville Road
Decatur, GA 30034
Gleason, H.A., 1974, The New Britton and Brown. Illustraded Flora of the Northeastern UnitedStates and Adjacent Canada. Hafner Press, NY.
Hitchcock, A.S., 1971, Manual of the Grasses of the United States (Second edition, revised by Agnes Chase), 2 vols., Dover Publications, NY.
Pohl, R.W., 1954, How to know the grasses., Wm. C. Brown Co., Dubuque, Iowa