Our Glorious Grasses ~ Gulf Muhly

Gulf Muhly in the city

A favorite of both residential and commercial landscapers, Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) sometimes  is known as pink or purple muhly because of variations in its natural color. The species name capillaris, which means hair-like, gave rise to other common names that reflect the plant’s delicacy: hair grass, or hair-awn muhly,

The genus name Muhlenbergia honors Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815), an American born and German-educated Lutheran pastor who returned from Germany to live in Pennsylvania. Forced to flee Philadelphia ahead of British forces during the War of Independence, he hid in the countryside, where he became interested in the plants that surrounded him. He began collecting; by 1791 he had the nucleus of his Index Flora Lancastriensis, a work containing descriptions of 454 genera and over a thousand species of both native and introduced plants.

Muhlenberg was particularly interested in the grasses, so it’s fitting that a species should be named for him. Even the plant’s common name, ‘muhly,’ points back to that early botanist.

For years, I came across the grass only in urban areas: in home gardens, parking lot dividers, and hotel landscaping. I’d occasionally see a pink fringe running down a fenceline or a small patch of pink decorating a forest’s edge, but substantial stands of the colorful grass evaded me.

This year was different. While visiting the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge  in mid-October, I found rivulets of pink coursing through the land.

Light as it was, the grass bent easily before the persistent wind.

Sometimes, it mingled pleasantly with other plants, like woolly croton. Known scientifically as Croton capitatus var. lindheimeri, woolly croton is named for Ferdinand Lindheimer, commonly considered the Father of Texas Botany because of his own extensive collections. Finding the two plants nestled together was delightful.

Muhlenberg‘s grass and Lindheimer’s croton meet on the prairie

Nature planted this single bunch of especially pale pink grass in such a way that nothing obscured its beauty.

The fringes of the grass present a surprisingly different appearance.

When it comes to color, autumn Gulf muhly blooms like a spring wildflower, enlivening the landscape in a similar way.

Comments always are welcome.

66 thoughts on “Our Glorious Grasses ~ Gulf Muhly

  1. I so enjoyed this appreciative nod to native prairie grasses, Linda. Wonderful story about Heinrich Muhlenberg, too. The middle of this country was once covered with these native grasses and while it is too late to bring them back, it is so exciting to me to find a few spots of ongoing restoration. I have been to Attwater, mostly to spot prairie birds, and revere it for the incredible prairie environment. I was there in spring, however, and it did not look like this. Heavenly to see a field of these native grasses, which, I too, have only seen in garden landscapes. Many thanks.

    1. Speaking of the middle of the country, have you visited the Tallgrass Prairie in Kansas? Its grasses are equally pleasing, and there are even more places dedicated to prairie chicken viewing during the mating season.

      I’ve yet to visit Attwater at the height of the wildflower season, but there isn’t a time that I haven’t enjoyed my time there. I’m glad you’ve been able to visit; it makes sense to me that it would appeal to you.

  2. Your pictures are beautiful! I have tried to capture Gulf Muhly in pics but I haven’t been able to get it to show up well.
    Over the past few years, I have learned a lot about the early naturalists of Texas — now when I am walking around and see “their” plants I feel like old friends have popped in to see me, so I really liked your noticing how Muhlenberg and Lindheimer plants met on the prairie.

    1. I made two trips to Attwater when this grass was in bloom. Photos from the first trip weren’t at all satisfactory. The grass was thin and the light was quite strong; the pink was barely noticeable. Two weeks later, more grass was in bloom, and the sort-of-cloudy conditions helped a good bit. After seeing so much Gulf Muhly planted in neat little beds around here, it was a thrill to see it running wild on the prairie.

      I feel a certain kinship with those naturalists, too. Reading their correspondence and journals certainly helps to round them out as people, with all of the foibles that people can have. There was a Lindheimer exhibit in New Braunfels some years ago that featured a few of his actual herbaria sheets with his handwritten notes attached. That day, I saw Lindheimer’s senna blooming along TX 16 outside Medina, and the pressed plant from his collection. It was an amazing experience.

      1. During a Master Naturalist conference, I went on a tour of the herbarium at Texas A & M. They had pulled out very special sheets for us to see, and like you, I felt it was really wonderful to see those historic specimens and notes.

          1. Yes! In my Texas Master Naturalist chapter, they needed someone to present on those early naturalists, and I was the only one who would do it (plus I worked at a historical park set in the 1830s for about 4 years, so I already knew some of that stuff). I feel like I have gotten to know Charles Wright and Thomas Drummond. And I look forward to learning more.

  3. The grasses are another amazing surprise around here, including pink Spoonbills, which I thought were flamingos when I first moved here. When you mentioned Muhlenberg, I immediately thought about the college in PA and did a quick search on the family. They were very impressive.

    1. I first met the Muhlenberg father through the history of American Lutheranism; it was quite a surprise when I discovered the botanist son. As for those faux flamingos, plenty of people have confused the two birds. On the other hand, we do have at least one flamingo. I’m not sure if it’s been seen since 2019, but there were several sightings of it after it escaped from its zoo and came to Texas!

  4. I’ve tried Guly muhly for years, always meeting with failure due to lack of light. No more! In the new garden, there are 3 and I added a couple more this past summer to the adjacent driveway garden. They all plumed a bit this fall, but they’re new. I’m looking forward to the mass of that pink froth in the future.

    Your photos are gorgeous, as usual, Linda!

    1. Do I remember you trying in the past with M. reverchonii? Perhaps it was M. capillaris. I just learned that there’s a white cultivar of Gulf muhly, and that there’s also a Lindheimer’s muhly. There are nice photos and information here. It must be great fun planning for your new spaces — your garden will be transformed. Add sunshine, and stir!

  5. You’re fortunate to have come upon such a broad display of mature gulf muhly. The most I’ve ever seen is a row of gulf muhly obviously planted by landscapers.

    The other day I learned about Muhlenbergia reverchonii, which grows natively in central Texas and which, because of its similarity to gulf muhly, I may well have sometimes mistaken for it.

    1. When I stopped by Attwater on my way home from Bastrop, the grass was just turning pink; I hoped that a little time would make it more impressive on a second visit, and it certainly did. My photos didn’t come close to capturing the reality, though. There were strands of color among the other plants that didn’t show up in the photos at all; I was lucky to find at least a few with some substance.

      I found these fine photos and interesting information about other Muhlenbergia species, including M. reverchonii. I had no idea there was a Lindheimer’s muhly, or that it’s native to the Edwards Plateau. It’s a beauty, too. I’d love to find that one.

        1. When I looked at the USDA map, it occurred to me that I’ve probably seen it and not recognized it, given that Medina, Kerr, Gillespie, etc. are counties where it’s found.

    1. I’ve not paid nearly as much attention to rushes and sedges, but you’re right that they can be as beautiful as the grasses. After a burn at the Brazoria prairie, the sedges and and spider lilies were the first plants to emerge in one very wet portion of the section.

  6. I love the pink grass, of course, and the comprehensive background you provided. What really caught my attention were the words “prairie chicken refuge.” Have you been there during the spring courtship season? I was sad to read this prairie chicken is one of the most endangered birds of North America…

    1. I haven’t been to Attwater during the mating season; I’ve only seen the rituals on video.To be honest, I’ve never been inclined to visit then. There are so many people who want to go, and space is limited. Visitors have to be prepared to be in the blinds before dawn, and that would mean I’d have to leave home around 2 a.m. or find lodging somewhere. I’d rather take my chances on coming across the birds on my own.

      There is good news for Texas prairie chickens, though. The population is at its highest since 1993; at least 178 birds (89 males) were counted this year, a stark turnaround from near extinction in the wild just a few years ago. Following Hurricane Harvey, the 2018 spring count revealed only 13 males.

      A federal Fish & Wildlife Service memo issued this year says,“The breakthrough was finally realized when researchers found red imported fire ants were likely derailing prairie-chicken recovery efforts by reducing native insects required as food for newly hatched prairie-chicken chicks. Wide-scale control of fire ants in areas where prairie-chickens were released has led to promising signs from Attwater’s prairie-chicken populations.”

      Did you happen to see my post about the aerial broadcasting of fire ant bait over Attwater? It’s working.

    1. The combination of so many shades of green and pink is delicious — just like that cotton candy. ‘Frothy’ is an excellent word to describe it. The stuff they sell today is different from that of years ago. Watching the vendor spin it onto that paper cone was great, but sticking your tongue into it and feeling it dissolve was even better. I didn’t think about sticking my tongue into the muhly; maybe next year I’ll try it!

  7. I love Muhly. It is colorful and it moves with the slightest bit of breeze. Watching it in the wind is like watching waves on the beach. It dances!

    1. So… here’s how these things go. I wondered if the muhly in your area was the same as our Gulf muhly. It’s not the same species; M. capillaris apparently doesn’t grow in your coastal sites. Still, there’s a relationship. It turns out that the sweetgrass used for braiding baskets and such is a close kin to ours: so close, in fact, that it used to be considered a variety of M. capillaris.

      Scientists aside, your muhly does have the same appearance, and behaves exactly as you describe. It’s always such fun to find these relationships!

  8. I haven’t seen Gulf Muhly before but it’s absolutely gorgeous so I hope I do come across it ‘in person’. (?? ‘in plant’ ??) It must be the loveliest sight when it’s growing across a large area and flowing in a breeze.

    1. From what I’ve read, the sort of sight I found is more typical of it. It doesn’t fill a field like little bluestem or silver bluestem can. It’s a bunch grass that sort of scatters itself around, which explains the “streams” of pink it produces on the prairie. This is the most I’ve ever seen in the wild. I don’t know if conditions have to be just right for it to bloom profusely, or if I’ve simply missed it in the past. I’ll certainly head back to Attwater next year to see what happens.

    1. Sometimes we plant lovers remind me of my family in a restaurant, back in the day when the whole family still was alive and going out as a group. Inevitably, when the dishes arrived, half of the people would look at the other half’s plates and say, “Oh, I wish I’d ordered that instead!” You envy this grass, and I envy your leaves — but they’re both pretty tasty!

      1. Agreed. While I am content with the many plant choices that are open to me, it is human nature to look across hardiness zones and admire how green things are on the other side of the fence!

          1. Falling snow is pretty magical and how it creates a hush upon the land, as well as how sparkly it is in sunlight and moonlight. It’s the shoveling part that isn’t so much fun! ;)

  9. Festive and beautiful. I assumed the college in Allentown PA was named for this scientist, but I just looked at Wikipedia and saw that it was named for his father, who organized the Lutheran church in the U.S. Quite a family, one of his brothers was a clergyman, Congressman, and a general in the Revolution.

    1. I first ‘met’ the Muhlenbergs through the father, when I joined the Lutheran church and learned some of its history. It would be decades before I discovered the botanist son. Here’s an interesting tidbit: the father’s middle name was Melchior, also reputed to be the name of one of the three Wise Men. I’d say it suited.

      I like your description of the grass as ‘festive.’ I mentioned to another reader that it could be nature’s version of the ‘angel hair’ we used to drape around Christmas trees and such before someone snapped to and decided fiberglass wasn’t such a good decorating material. It has that same casual appearance on the land, as though it just got tossed, and landed where it pleased.

    1. Not only ignored: sometimes, almost invisible. When the plant’s not in bloom, it can be attractive, but it’s not the show-stopper it becomes when that pink makes its appearance. I just learned that there’s a cultivar of this grass that’s snowy white. Can you imagine pink and white planted together?

    1. It does, indeed. It’s like nature decided to drape the other prairie plants with her own pink version of “angel hair.” Maybe she’s decorating for Christmas, too!

    1. It’s the sort of sight that can stop even people who generally pay no attention whatsoever to the plants around them. Even the smallest bunch is eye-catching.

    1. I’ve wondered whether our freeze last February might have encouraged some of the grasses in the same way it seems to have brought increase to other species. I certainly never have seen muhly like this in the years I’ve been sort-of-looking for it. I’m glad you’ve been able to enjoy it, too.

  10. In the wild, it looks like big tufts of cotton candy pulled off the cone and let blow in the wind to land in the grass. Odd but interesting effect. It’s the pink color does it.

    1. Cotton candy does come to mind, especially for those of us who remember high-quality cotton candy: so light and airy that it dissolves almost before hitting the tongue. It’s an amazing sight, all that pink that is as vibrant, but so very different, from flowers.

      I recently became aware of a companion book to The Lost WordsThe Lost Spells. You may have it already, but if you’ve not come across it, check it out.

    1. I’d never heard of that place, although you may have mentioned it on your blog. I found this page, which both shows the prairie smoke and makes clear why you would be interested in visiting! What a wonderful spot. I noticed that it’s a breeding ground for one of my favorite birds: the Loggerhead Shrike.

  11. I can imagine how wonderful these must look with the wind in their hair! Like pink sea perhaps? I am particularly interested to see this grass in a natural setting, as I’ve been growing it from seed this year. I have several pots with decent clumps forming and now I can better plan where they might establish best.

    1. Now, that’s a delight — knowing that you have some of this growing in your world. Even though it is quite attractive when presented more formally, as in the first photo, it does combine beautifully with other plants, and I think it would do well nearly anywhere. I like the thought of it as pink seafoam; that captures the ethereal nature of the plant, too.

  12. I’ve always enjoyed seeing these types of “decorative” grasses, how they clump and how beautiful they look when so tall and fluffly. I just wish the shopping centers would stop planting them at the dividers such that you can’t see whether there are any cars coming right near by. Perhaps I just need to buy a taller vehicle, like a truck. I love that you found it growing wild, that’s an extra nice surprise.

    1. There’s an intersection near me where flowers cause the same problem. Twice, some ill-advised plantings had to be removed because their unexpected growth started blocking people’s ability to see on-coming traffic. We’re into winter now, which means new plantings of pansies and snapdragons. They’re more well-behaved.

      This is the first time I’ve found so much of the Gulf muhly roaming wild. My photos don’t do it justice, thanks partly to the fact that it was the middle of the day. I would have liked to see it in the early morning or later in the afternoon, but it’s a three-hour drive from home, so middle-of-the-day it had to be.

  13. I was just wondering where that “muhly” term came from and… there it is in the very next paragraph. Amazing how Muhlenberg’s latent(?) interest in plants came to be what he’s eventually known for.

    1. And it was just as interesting to me to learn that it was the son and not the father for whom the plant was named. I’d casually thought that theologian dad had a plant hobby. Then, I learned that it was the son, instead. They were quite a family.

  14. I love this grass. It used to grow in the median of I 59 in Fort Bend county before the expansion. They would always mow it down when it was at its peak. Used to piss me off. It’s all gone now of course.

    1. That made me laugh, Ellen. There’s a certain spot in Seabrook where Gulf muhly’s been planted as part of a landscape, and sure enough: every year the ‘gardeners’ clip it off just as it begins to put on some nice, feathery growth. I ran down the person in charge once and asked why. The reason? “We want our plantings to look tidy.” So? Plant somethine else.

  15. We do have this species hereabouts but by a different common name, according to GoBotany which shows it in just two counties, Hampshire where I live and Franklin to our north along with two others in the east, Hair-awned Muhly. I say we do, but it is not one I have studied although I do see reddish tinged grass seed heads in the sunlight when driving and now will have to get a closer look to see if I am seeing what you see. It’s easy to understand why landscapers and landowners would use this plant as who wouldn’t enjoy bursts of pink Muhly flowers in the yard?

    1. We have other grasses that provide that ‘purple haze,’ but aren’t in the same genus. In fact, two of them — Kleberg and King Ranch bluestem — are invasive and real problems. Hair-awn Muhly does seem to be more ‘open’ than Gulf muhly, so that’s probably one way to tell them apart. I’m not sure I’ve seen hair-awn muhly, although I may have. Now that I know it exists, I’ll have to look for it.

        1. That’s the old common/scientific name conundrum. When we refer to hair-awn muhly, the reference generally is to M. reverchonii, which doesn’t show up in your area. I suspect I’ve seen it in the hill country, and just not recognized it, since it doesn’t grow in my area. This nursery site has some good photos that show the slight difference between the species.

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