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Southern Gardening: Use Gulf Muhly grass for winter looks, color


Backlit Gulf Muhly grass glows like a rich, pink cloud. This native plant is a winner in Mississippi landscapes.

Backlit Gulf Muhly grass glows like a rich, pink cloud. This native plant is a winner in Mississippi landscapes. Photo by: Gary Bachman/MSU Extension


Dr. Gary Bachman



I know some homeowners who look at ornamental grasses and wonder what is the big deal; these plants are only grass. But when fall rolls around, many of these naysayers change their opinion 180 degrees. 


Fall is a great time to appreciate ornamental grasses, as their flower plumes, actually called inflorescences, really pop out in their full glory. 


One of the best and showier grasses is not a selection that was bred for any particular characteristic. I'm talking about Gulf Muhly grass, a Mississippi native grass that really struts its stuff in the fall and winter. 


This grass has a unique texture with spiky, upright leaves that have summer interest. But it's the plant's last, grand flourish that really creates landscape excitement. The grass flowers in billowy masses that resemble pink clouds in the landscape. As long as there isn't a hard freeze, the color will hold all winter. Even after freezing temperatures, the flower heads keep their airy shape. 


One of my favorite plantings is at my office at the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi. 


In the fall, as the sun rises, the Gulf Muhly grass is backlit and absolutely glows like a rich, pink cloud. We get lots of compliments from visitors who see this sight. This planting allows many of them to realize the significant impact landscape grasses can have in our winter landscapes. 


Many visitors to the annual Fall Flower and Garden Fest in Crystal Springs have marveled at the long-standing combination of Gulf Muhly grass and the heirloom chrysanthemum Clara Curtis. I can't wait to see this combo again at the 2017 Fall Flower and Garden Fest on Oct. 13 and 14. 


Now is a great time to plant this native grass that was chosen as a Mississippi Medallion native plant winner in 2010. Select a landscape site that receives at least six hours of full sun during the day. Turn over the soil, and work in at least 3 to 4 inches of quality compost. Always set the plant a little bit higher than the native grade of the landscape bed. This aids in drainage, which is always important in our Mississippi landscapes and gardens. 


Carefully consider spacing needs. While a mass planting of Gulf muhly grass is gorgeous, these plants need their individual space. Each plant can grow up to 4 feet wide, so plant on 3-foot centers. This will achieve that filled-in, mass look. 


Like all ornamental grasses, there is really only one maintenance item that can't be neglected. In late winter, cut the grass clumps back to 6 inches before the spring growth starts. This trimming will clear the way for the new foliage and result in a nicely formed clump. Don't be tempted to cut back any earlier, because then you will remove the dry inflorescences that create movement with the wind and habitat for wildlife. 


There are similar plants called muhly grass that have similar landscape performance, but most of these have white flower heads. Most garden centers will just lump the different species together and call them muhly grass. 


Regardless of what they are called, muhly grass should be in your landscape. Just remember that it's Gulf muhly grass, known botanically as Muhlenbergia capilaris, that has the pink flower heads. 


Gary Bachman is an Extension and research professor of horticulture at the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi and hosts Southern Gardening television and radio programs. Contact him at [email protected]



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