By Joyce Comingore
Oh what a beautiful morning, there's a bright purple haze in the garden. Those pink/purple billowy clouds of swaying grasses right now are called pink or purple muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaries genus, and Poaceae is the family.
It was named for Gotthif Henry Ernest Mulenberg, also, Heinrich Ludwig Muhlen-berg, or, Henry Muhlenberg (1753-1815). A German educated Trinity Lutheran Church Pastor in Lancaster, Pa., the first president of Franklin College, now Franklin and Marshall College, he let his interest in plants turn to passion and his passion turned into obsession.
An accomplished botanist, chemist and mineralogist, he collected native plants around his area and wrote about them. Active in the natural history circles of his day, he was considered the "Linnaeus of America" by his European correspondents, with whom he collaborated.
Henry is credited with classifying and naming 150 species of plants in his "Work of 1785, Index Florida Lancas-triensis." This earned him the distinction as Americas' first outstanding botanist.
Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark gave him seeds of six western plants collected on their epic trip. Muhlenberg fondly grew them in his garden. His treatise on American grasses was published two years after his death.
There are more than 70 species of muhly grass, most are in the western parts of North America. Lindheimers muhly, or blue grass, with grey/green/blue foliage that shoots beige plumes up to four feet, white cloud variety and dwarf pink muhly grasses are some of the more popular ones. Muhly capillaries is native from Massachusetts to Florida and over to Texas and Mexico.
By far, the pink muhly grass is the biggest eye catcher, show stopper for fall time drama, with its poufs of rose/mauve grass heads waving in the breeze, that last about two months. They can reach 4 feet high and 3 feet wide, with their plumes cascading and fanned out from lovely spherical balls of blue/green leaf spikes. They don't produce runners underground like common grasses, they just clump. The plumes make up 1/3 to 1/2 the height of the plant. The clumps of grass are nice hedges, borders or good in potted plants, even before they bloom.
As an outstanding focal point, clumps of three fill a space beautifully. Muhly grass is a lovely accent, even without the plumes. The plumes do well in indoors in floral arrangements.
In Texas, Muhly capillaries is called, gulf or Bull Muhly. In South Carolina, their native muhley grass is called "sweetgrass." In the 18th century, African-Americans started using these grasses to make baskets. Years ago, I loved buying these baskets when in South Carolina. When doing fire suppression, much of this muhly grass was depleted, but South Carolina is making great efforts to restore it.
Be careful planting them too near buildings, because, when the dry season hits, they can add fuel to a fire. Suitable for ranges of zones 5 through 10, above zone 8, they will turn brownish, but come back in spring after they are clipped. It does well in full sun or shade, acid or alkaline soil, moist or dry soil, but like any other plant that is drought tolerant, it produces blooms better if care is provided.
Clip it back in mid-February, to about 12 inches, never below 7 inches, before new growth appears. Rake up dead foliage, and you can apply Osmocote. Cleanup needs to be done yearly, late winter, for best appearance and to prevent fire hazards. Dividing this clump is best done then, in the spring. When planting, dig a wider hole, but only as deep as the plant in its pot, not much deeper. Soil settles and it will be below the soil line. Throw in some 12-6-6 fertilizer, gently pull apart the roots, fill in soil and water it in, eliminating air pockets. After that, an occasional 10-10-10 or 6-6-6 hand full of fertilizer will do. It takes about three years for plumes to really develop. Very salt tolerant, it can grow wild in various habitats, not enough to be invasive, and has no major pests or disease problems. If you are interested, it is deer resistant.
Lindheimer's muhly grass, one of the largest species of muhly, is a great substitute for pampas grass that cuts your arms and hands with its leaves. It is softer, more cold hardy, also, and doesn't need a yearly clipping like most other grasses.
For a flowing movement to your yard, try some of the muhly grasses. They are available locally at Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Native Plant Nursery, native plant sales, and John Sibley's All Native Garden Center on Center Road. ( I just got mine from John after extension's Butterfly Conference.)
We are anticipating going into our dry season, at the end of hurricane season. Because of the growing awareness of gardeners for water conscious practices, here are the 10 most drought tolerant native plants recommended for our area. Some also attract birds and butterflies. Firebush - Hamelis patens; beauty berry - Callicarpa American (deciduous); golden aster - Chrysopsis floridana; trumpet honeysuckle vine - Campsis radicans; longleaf pine - Pinus palustris; spiderwort - Tradescantia ohiensis;powderpuff - Mimosa strigillosa, a ground cover of fernlike leaves, that are sensitive to touch, closing up when stroked, adds color to lawns, can be mowed, and flowers resemble pink puff balls; silver saw palmetto - Serena repens; and last weeks article, beach sunflower - Helianthus debelis; now, this weeks subject, pink or purple muhly grass - Muhlenbergia capillaries.
Ohhh . and remember to thank a plant for our fresh air.
Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, director of the American Hibiscus Society and Garden Club of Cape Coral member.