It stops traffic in our small town. In the middle of fall, cars come to a screeching halt as the drivers see the stand of pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) rimming the upper left curbing of our circle driveway. It must be the unexpectedness of seeing a swath of pink cotton candy backlit by the soft angle of fall’s lower light that causes this reaction. In early mornings, it is often sprinkled with dew or sparkled with frost, giving the appearance of glistening pink diamonds that would have caused even Elizabeth Taylor to feel intense envy. It is a thing of wondrous awe.
Pink muhly grass waves its pink magic wands like no other. Hardy in USDA Zones 5–10, it requires the sharpest of drainage to prosper. In nature, this grass colonizes the sand dunes along the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern Atlantic coast. My eyes were first blessed to see a blanket of pink illuminated by the setting sun while walking along the boardwalk to the ocean’s edge in South Carolina. It was an epiphany of beauty and totally unexpected. The light, the site and the mass of plants packed tightly together made it appear as if one continuous layer of pink fluff had come to rest on the Earth’s surface.
After seeing that first sea of pink on an October afternoon, plants were located, purchased and hauled back home to our garden, then located in Zone 6. The composition of the soil was anything but sandy; it was more like the stuff of brick-making dense red clay. The planting area had the requisite drainage, but the plants did not live through the winter.
We later moved to Houston, TX, where the soil was sandy and the pink muhly grew naturally. It was placed in our new garden so the setting sun would make the pink muhly grass appear aflame in the fall. It was lovely but not nearly as spectacular as the scene at the South Carolina seashore. The grass was a big player in a small garden dominated by pine trees and yaupon hollies (Ilex vomitoria). More massing was needed to achieve the remembered pink haze.
In April, pink muhly grass begins growing after being cut to the ground in late winter. Planting spring bloomers around the grass will help give interest until it gains momentum over the summer for the big fall show.
Three years later, we moved back to Tennessee, propelled by the birth of our first grandchild there. This time we settled in a small town that was more than 100 miles to the west and south of our former garden in warmer Zone 7. The soil was still shovel-breaking red clay interspersed with rocks (hardly the light and airy environment of sandy shores beloved by a native grass), but determination sometimes overrides logic. The first fall, a couple of pink muhly grasses in 1-gallon pots joined Knock Out roses in the circular bed that jutted into the space of the driveway.
Looking across the driveway stand of Muhlenbergia capillaris, the original planting can be seen in the round bed by the steps leading to the front door.
The color of the rose blossoms was the perfect marriage to the rosy pink of the muhly grass. Together, they turned the fall garden into a magical fairyland. The same plantings were duplicated on either side of the steps at the top of a hill in the backyard with delightful results. After the gravel driveway was paved with concrete, with some of the gravel tossed along the edge of the upper curbing to help with leveling, the only lawn on the entire property was planted to the left of the garage. The mix of bluegrass and tall fescue did well enough, except for the rocky part at the edge where leftover sand had been spread after stucco was applied to the lower cinder block portion of the garage. Years of applying special grass-starting mix, raking rocks, diligent weeding and faithful watering could not grow the desired lawn there. The idea of trying a stand of pink muhly, like we had seen at the beach years earlier, was carried out with divisions taken from the existing plantings of the driveway bed and the top of the hill. In total, 50 plants were nestled closely together in three narrow rows with hardly more than one living sprig per plug. Not only did every piece live, but they grew and flourished quickly in the sandy gravel and clay mixture. After being cut down to ground level each year in late winter, it was top-dressed with soil conditioner to keep weeds from invading until the grass could fill in.
It was somewhat sparse for the first few seasons, but its potential for greatness shone through when the rising and setting sun was positioned just right in the fall. Patience paid its dividends each year as the muhly grass filled in more until it became a writhing serpent of pink. Gentle breezes or violent storms, wind, rain, ice or snow, the pink muhly stand along the driveway is the object of desire for all who see it, whether they are gardeners or not.
Muhlenbergia capillaris requires full sun and excellent drainage for the best results. Winter temperatures should not dip lower than -20 F, although solme garderners have seen it survive in a protected Zone 4 microclimate. The optimum time for moving or dividing is during the cooler months when rainfall or hand-watering can be done in abundance — although pink muhly is extremely drought-tolerant once established, it needs copious amounts of water to get the roots settled in to its liking. Ask your local nursery to carry the pink muhly. And ask your landscaper to install a mass of it on a slope where the autumn sun can bring out the highlights. Or, you can do what I did and buy a couple of pots and patiently divide them until a sweep of pink perfection is achieved.
Pink muhly grass can be planted in a swath or alone as a focal point.
Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) looks like a waterfall when covered with December snow.
Botanical Name: Muhlenbergia capillaris
Common Name: Pink muhly grass
Hardiness: USDA Zones 5–10
Height: 3 to 6 feet
Spread: 1 to 3 feet
Growth Habit: Clumping
Growth Pace: Moderate
Light: Full sun is best, but part shade is tolerated.
Maintenance: Low; yearly cutting to the ground
Tolerance: Deer tolerant, drought tolerant, salt tolerant
Characteristics: Native, self-seeds, showy flowers, showy foliage, showy seed heads
Bloom Time: Fall
Flower Color: Pink fading to purple and lavender
Uses: Beds and borders, containers, naturalizing, specimen plant or focal point; may be grown as an annual
Seasonal Interest: Winter, summer, fall
Growing Conditions: Tolerates a wide variety of soil conditions from moist to dry, acidic to alkaline, sandy to clay. Established plantings will not need supplemental watering, but the grass will get larger with liberal irrigation. In areas where perennial, Muhlenbergia capillaris won’t start growing until mid to late spring. Major growth and flowering happens when the weather is hot. Winter color is light tan, and it will remain standing and attractive until finally collapsing in January. It can be cut down to ground level at that time (or before) if a neater appearance is preferred. Self-seeding occurs best if it is allowed to stand into midwinter. Seedlings will have fine, flat blades with a slightly bluish tint to distinguish them from lawn and other grasses. Babies show up most reliably in gravel paths.
(A version of this article appeared in a State-by-State Gardening April 2014 print edition. Photos by Frances Fairegarden.)
Frances Fairegarden is a retired accountant and lifelong gardener who has lived and gardened in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Southern California, Northeast Tennessee and Houston, TX.