One of the loveliest sights in our area is the purple muhly grass shimmering on the dunes in the fall. I can remember when a sea of the stuff greeted you when you arrived on St. George Island.
You can still enjoy those shimmering purple flowers although the wild population is greatly reduced.
Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is a native to Florida and is a fall favorite for Florida landscapes. This native grass forms clumps of very fine blue-green foliage that explodes with color in October and adds texture to the garden all year long. It grows to heights of two to three feet with a spread of two to three feet.
Muhly grass is exceptionally drought tolerant but tolerates periodic flooding during the warm months so it is good for wetlands. It prefers full sun to part shade and does best in average to dry soil where there is very good drainage. This plant does not tolerate winter wetness well. This is a great plant for xeriscapes. Muhly grass is rated hardy in USDA Zones 6-11.
Best of all, this plant requires almost no perpetual maintenance as long as its basic watering needs are met, and it is usually free of pests and disease. You should cut back dormant growth in winter before new growth begins to emerge in early spring.
In addition to its attractive appearance and popularity as an ornamental grass, purple muhly grass is also important to a variety of wildlife. It is used for shelter or as a nesting site for some species of birds and mammals. It is also highly attractive to several species of ladybugs that help control pests in areas where purple muhly grass is planted or naturally occurs. Muhly grass is unpalatable to deer so it can be useful where deer munching on the landscape are a problem.
Muhly is also referred to as sweetgrass and was used to weave baskets in the coastal Carolinas for generations. Visitors my still occasionally encounter a booth displaying these baskets on the roadside. Muhly baskets have an attractive fresh odor and a pale green patina. Native Americans also used it to scent their personal ornaments.
A hybrid form called “Pink Flamingos” has shown up in the nursery trade the last couple of years. It is said to be a hybrid. It forms a three to four foot mound with distinctly spear-shaped plumes and is spectacular in late fall.
The genus Muhlenbergia is named for Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815), who was a German-educated Lutheran minister and the first president of Franklin College, now Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He is most famous for his work in the field of botany but was also an accomplished chemist and mineralogist. He is credited with classifying and naming 150 species of plants in his 1785 work “Index Flora Lancastriensis,” which led to great advances in the study of plants and earned him the distinction as America’s first outstanding botanist.