Like the transformation of Cinderella from a servant to a princess, there are some horticultural gems that go from the ordinary to the sublime over the course of a growing season. I consider purple muhly – pronounced “myoo-lee” (Muhlenbergia capillaris) – to be the Cinderella of ornamental grasses.
For most of the year, purple muhly goes unnoticed as a 2- to 3-foot tall mound of stiff blue-green to gray-green wiry leaves. This heat- and drought-tolerant native grass quietly bides its time until October when it erupts into bloom. The gorgeous pinkish-purple plumes envelop the leaves in a billowy haze that often make me forget what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go. At the beginning of December these colorful seedheads fade to tan and persist through the winter.
This undemanding grass prefers to be sited in full sun and well-drained soil. Although some horticulturists recommend cutting the old foliage back in the spring – some say down to 3 to 4 inches above the crown, while others recommend going no lower than 8 inches – I side with those who feel that the best approach is to do nothing. You want to cut something back? Find a bed of liriope or some overgrown loropetalum; leave pink muhly alone.
You just can’t plant one. For the most spectacular display, plant purple muhly in groups or en masse to create large sweeping drifts. If you prefer a different color, consider other cultivars of muhly, such as ‘White Cloud’ or ‘Pink Flamingos.’
Unlike Cinderella, these muhly grasses will captivate you well beyond the stroke of midnight.