Southern Gardening: Gulf muhly grass makes showy fall contribution

 

Gulf muhly grass makes a big contribution to fall landscapes as it flowers in billowy, pink masses.

Gulf muhly grass makes a big contribution to fall landscapes as it flowers in billowy, pink masses. Photo by: Gary Bachman/MSU Extension Srvice

 

Gary Bachman

 

 

The 40th Fall Flower and Garden Fest at the Mississippi State University Truck Crops Branch Station in Crystal Springs is behind us, and I have to say that it was one of the best I've ever attended. 

 

The weather was nice and cool, or cold from my perspective. The education sessions were active and well attended. The food vendors had delicious fair-type food. And the greenhouses and nurseries had awesome plant material to purchase for everyone's home landscapes. 

 

The trial beds gave attendees a good look at wonderful plants and how they're performing in our Mississippi environment. In the display beds, I was pleasantly reminded of a very favorite plant for the fall. Is there a showier fall plant that's better than our Mississippi native Gulf muhly grass? This plant is so good that it was selected as a Mississippi Medallion winner in 2010. 

 

This grass has a unique texture, with spiky, upright leaves that have summer interest. But it's the plant's last grand flourish in the fall that really creates landscape excitement. The grass flowers in billowy masses, called inflorescences, which resemble pink clouds floating in the landscape. 

 

The color holds as long as we don't have a hard freeze. Even after freezing temperatures, the flower heads keep their airy shape. 

 

The plantings at the truck crops station are truly gorgeous on a sunny fall morning. The sun coming up backlights the Gulf muhly grass, and it seems to glow in the rich morning light. Anyone seeing this sight realizes the significant impact landscape grasses can have in our winter landscapes. 

 

Many visitors to the annual Fall Flower and Garden Fest marveled at the long-admired planting, and most wanted plants of their own to take home. 

 

Over the past couple of years, the truck crops crew have added an exciting newer selection called White Cloud. Instead of pink inflorescences, they billow pure white. These really do look like clouds swaying in any gentle breeze. 

 

Now is a great time to plant this native. Select a landscape site that receives at least six hours of full sun, and always set the plant a little bit higher than the native grade to help with drainage. 

 

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 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 you will remove the dry inflorescences that create movement with the wind and habitat for wildlife. 

 

When I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, I learned of the early history and importance of Gulf muhly grass, also called sweet grass. Descendants of enslaved peoples in the antebellum South would harvest the grass to weave sweet-grass baskets, an art that continues to this day. I remember visiting with the basket weavers selling their wares. My wife has several of these treasured sweet-grass baskets. 

 

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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