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Muhlenbergia

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Quick Look

Muhly Grasses are some of the most beautiful native grasses. They deliver a powerful combination for modern landscapes: drought tolerance and drama. And they grow just as easily in inhospitable areas as in well-tended gardens.

The most well-known, Pink Muhly, can stop traffic when in bloom. The cultivar ‘White Cloud’ warrants high praise with its moonlight white plumes. Then there’s Lindheimer’s Muhly, a great choice for screening, and Bamboo Muhly, a standout in containers. All appreciate well-drained soil and sun. And, if planting in fall, get them in the ground at least a month before first frost.

Digging Deeper

Primarily found in the Western Hemisphere, the majority of Muhlenbergia make their home in the southern U.S. and Mexico. They often grow in arid or semiarid regions, with adaptations that make them a good choice for low-water landscapes. This also means they need well-drained soil to remain healthy and survive wet winters. They need full sun and dry conditions to look their best, and may suffer in shade or wet summers.

Muhlenbergia was named after one of the first early-American scientists, Lutheran minister and self-taught botanist, Gotthilf Henry Ernest Muhlenberg (1753-1815). He became interested in botany while hiding from British soldiers during the Revolutionary war. Muhlenberg was one of the early members of the American Philosophical Society (APS), the first scientific association in the New World, founded by Benjamin Franklin, John Bartram, and others. Many of Muhlenberg’s herbaria now reside in the collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Pennsylvania.

The genus contains over 150 species, but only a few are commercially available.

Muhly Grasses in Production

As a group, Muhlys are generally easy to grow and require little extra attention. Disease and insect problems are rare, although M. capillaris can get rust on occasion. They take average moisture in containers and should not stay wet. They grow relatively quickly and are not particularly sensitive to fertilizer salts. However, we suggest using a slow release fertilizer at a medium rate.

Muhly Grasses in the Landscape

There are a few caveats when it comes to putting Muhlenbergia capillaris in the cultivated landscape. It can struggle if winter drainage is very poor. This can be compounded by planting too late in the season. In central North Carolina, we’ve had good results installing them during spring or in early fall. For fall planting, we aim to get them in the ground by mid-October at the latest.

In recent years there's been an increase in Tar Spot, a fungal disease (Phyllachora sp.) that can cause decline and dieback. It’s more likely to occur in plantings with poor air circulation, in hot and humid areas, and with excessive fertilization. It may be helpful to thin dense stands to increase air circulation. Also, cut back affected plants and dispose of the debris to prevent spread of the disease. Fortunately, Tar Spot hasn't been a problem for us on the cultivar 'White Cloud', so it's a good alternative if your Pink Muhly Grass is suffering.

Muhlenbergia capillaris (Pink Muhly Grass)

The most well-known member of Muhlenbergia has to be Pink Muhly Grass. A big planting of this grass stops traffic. Even people who aren’t familiar with ornamental grasses often know M. capillaris.

Pink Muhly Grass is one of the widest ranging species of the genus. In production, it’s fairly consistent, although there may be variations in cold tolerance depending on provenance of the seed. It’s typically hardy to Zone 7, but there is hope that hardier selections can be found.

It happily adapts to a range of soils, has low water needs, and is tolerant of high salinity. Its native habitats are hot and dry, often leading to a build-up of salts in the soil. Pink Muhly has adapted to handle the challenge. 

Check out our blog post, Think Ahead with Pink Muhly, and our plant profile for more info.

Muhlenbergia capillaris 'White Cloud' (White Cloud Muhly Grass)

Few cultivars of M. capillaris have come to market, perhaps because the species is so outstanding. However, the most common cultivar, M. capillaris ‘White Cloud’, does warrant additional praise. Soft white seed heads replace the pink of the species. They're full, billowy, and make a spectacular display. They reflect the light and become magically translucent.

Compared to the species, the habit of White Cloud Muhly Grass habit is more upright and open. 'White Cloud' also blooms later than Pink Muhly Grass—around two weeks later here in central North Carolina. It also appears to be more resistant to Tar Spot, a fungal disease (Phyllachora sp.) that affects Pink Muhly Grass. These differences make us suspect 'White Cloud' may be a hybrid with another species (M. filipes), but we don't have confirmation for that.   

With ‘White Cloud’ blooming several weeks after Pink Muhly, you can greatly extend bloom time for Muhly in your landscape by interplanting them. Begin with pink, blend into both, and end with white. The blooms on both Muhlys persist well into winter, giving a real end-of-season show.

Muhlenbergia reverchonii (Rose Muhly)

While Pink Muhly is the most well known, other species are gaining traction. Our most recent addition is M. reverchonii. Rose Muhly has fine-textured foliage and showy, pinkish-red plumes that float in a cloud above the foliage. A clump-former, it resembles Pink Muhly Grass (M. capillaris) but is smaller in stature and has softer, more diffuse blooms. It occurs naturally in limestone soils and seep areas from central Oklahoma and Texas, south to central Mexico. It tolerates heat, drought, and humidity like a champ. It’s a tough and adaptable plant, thriving in most soils and handling wet conditions better than M. capillaris. For Northerners who pine for Muhly Grass, this one’s creeping closer—it’s hardy to Zone 5.

The older leaf blades on Muhlenbergia reverchonii curl and accumulate at the base, a distinctive trait of this species. The curly bunches form tussock-like cushions on established plants. The reverchonii in the botanical name refers to Julien Reverchon (1837-1905), a French botanist who immigrated to Texas. At his death, his collection housed more than 2,600 species and more than 20,000 specimens of Texas plants.

Muhlenbergia lindheimeri (Lindheimer’s Muhly)

This species was named after Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801-1879), the first permanent resident plant collector in Texas, often called the Father of Texas Botany. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Lindheimer’s Muhly is native only to the Edwards Plateau of central Texas. This area was maintained as savannah grassland up until the mid-1800s.

Although it’s now uncommon in its native range, Lindheimer’s Muhly has become an increasingly popular landscape plant. It’s well-suited to heat and drought. M. lindheimeri also performs well in the Southeast, where the high humidity is often a problem for plants from arid regions.

This Muhly has fine foliage and an upright, fountain-like habit. The blue gray foliage reaches four feet, with purplish-tinged panicles adding another 8 to 24” in September. The blooms ripen to a silvery white, and the seed heads persist for months. It continues to be attractive in the winter landscape.

Lindheimer’s Muhly can reach up to six feet, making it a good choice for screening or as a specimen in a mixed planting. It brings color and a strong, upright profile to the landscape.

Muhlenbergia dumosa (Bamboo Muhly)

Although Bamboo Muhly is native to Arizona and into southern Mexico, it’s easy to imagine it gracing giant porcelain planters in Victorian conservatories. It’s an elegant plant that cries out for containers.

Hardy to Zone 8, its habit is very different from most Muhlys. The erect, arching stems are finely branched, with very narrow leaves. The flowers are insignificant. What makes this grass so special is its billowy, bamboo-like appearance, which never fails to charm.

It looks best with a bit more water than the other Muhlys require, although it can withstand dry periods. At the nursery we first received this plant from the late, renowned plantsman, J.C. Raulston.

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