Our Glorious Grasses ~ Gulf Muhly on a Less Airy Day

In my previous post, I mentioned that two common names for Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) are ‘hair grass’ and ‘hair-awn muhly.’ Both refer to the light and delicate appearance of the plant: especially its tendency to blow about in the breeze.

Everyone can have a bad hair day, of course, and this ‘hair grass’ is no exception. When it’s been awash in fog long enough for droplets of water to weigh down its apparent weightlessness, the plant becomes attractive in a different way.

Both photos were taken on the same October morning at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge in Arkansas’s Ouachita Mountains. In the first image, near-zero visibility fog meant very little light, and another common name, ‘purple muhly,’ applied. In the second photo, the fog had begun to lift, and the grass took on its more usual color.

 

Comments always are welcome.

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.

Floral Filigree

Not rain but dew gave this fading neighborhood rain lily (Zephyranthes chlorosolen) its unusual appearance.

I’ve often shown the brilliant white petals and sepals of these flowers in full bloom. While both can be tinged with pink, and while it isn’t unusual for the flowers to become a darker pink as they fade, in this instance the color suffused the entire flower in a way that seemed unusual.

Even more remarkably, the transparency created by the dewdrops and the patterns that emerged because of them reminded me of the finely-drawn gold filigree work that typifies much West African jewelry.

They also reminded me of this favorite poem from W.S. Merwin, who understood that not all jewels can be found in a shop.

Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age
                                 “Dew Light” ~ W.S. Merwin

 

Comments always are welcome.

Ornaments for the Roadside

American basket-flower with common sunflowers

In 1862, General Albert Sidney Johnston lost his life during the Civil War’s Battle of Shiloh, but before his death, he and his wife, Eliza Griffin Johnston, lived and traveled in Texas. The details of their life together are beyond the scope of this post, but Eliza was a keen observer of the world around her, an accomplished artist, and a great lover of wildflowers. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, she created a watercolor record of Texas wildflowers; eventually, she bound her images into a book and presented them to her husband as a birthday gift.

In 1894, Rebecca Jane Fisher, a member of The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, began seeking Republic of Texas artifacts for a museum. When she asked Eliza for something that had belonged to the General, Eliza donated her wildflower book. It remained in an Austin bank vault for years; today the book, containing more than a hundred watercolor images and wonderfully descriptive text, is available under the titleTexas Wild Flowers. It pleased me to find that Eliza had included my beloved basket-flower in her collection. She writes:

In passing through north western Texas, the traveler will frequently find his path bordered for miles by this flower mingled with sunflowers. The seed, falling from a single cluster of each will stock many acres; by being caught up by passing wheels, or clinging to horses’ feet, they are planted, and thus become ornaments for the roadside.
Emerging basket-flower ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City

Today, these ‘roadside ornaments’ are equally common. Named for the stiff, straw-colored phyllaries (modified leaves) which form a kind of woven basket at the bottom of the flower, they seem to be especially fond of disturbed ground or seemingly odd locations.

Abloom at the base of a billboard ~ Clear Lake Shores

Their considerable height — often as much as six to eight feet  — makes it easy to use the sky as a pleasing background for the only native Centaurea species in the U.S. (It should be noted that the name I learned and that still is most often used — Centaurea americana — has been changed to Plectocephalus americanus on many sites. Caution: taxonomists at work!)

Along a Brazoria County road

Even though their appearance seemed late this year, their locations were predictable. The small colony that’s decorated the bank of a Brazoria Wildlife Refuge canal for as many years as I’ve been visiting was in full bloom, and offered up a surprise.

Banking on predictability ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Pink and lavender, combined with cream, may be the usual basket-flower colors, but occasionally a white one appears. Along the same Brazoria Refuge canal where I found my dependable colony, one white basket-flower was blooming: a joy for my white flower loving heart, and as pretty a natural variation as could be found.

One white flower, two views ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge canal

 

Comments always are welcome.

Sit! Stay! Bloom!

Of course the so-called Obedient Plant never will be as obedient as a dog — it’s not going to roll over or fetch — but there’s a reason for its name. Bent, twisted, or arranged around the stalk, individual flowers tend to stay put; arranged in parallel rows, the effect can be charming.

These Spring Obedient Plants (Physostegia intermedia) found near the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge will bloom until late June or July; the so-called Fall Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) appears here from August to October. While the doubled stem shown above is unusual, the curves of the developing flowers always are attractive.

The flowers open from bottom to top along the stem, and visiting bees seem to move in the same direction. Tubular, two-lipped blooms offer a handy ‘landing pad’ for the bees; entering one flower after another to gather nectar, the bees then back out, carrying pollen with them as they go.

The plants are less obedient in the garden. A member of the mint family, Physotegia spreads easily; like mint, it can fill flower beds if not contained. Still, that same tendency to naturalize allows it to provide great sweeps of color across the landscape. Whether straight and tall as the snapdragons it resembles, or delicate and curved in development, it’s a welcome sign of spring’s continued unfolding.

 

Comments always are welcome.