A Mist of Tiny Leaves and All the Greens of Spring

Call it acid green or April-fresh or lime-jello-fake-green. This time of year spring greens catch my eye and soul to remind me that the life force is too strong to contain.

Ryegrass or dandelion leaves, those dreaded yellow-green catkins pushing out pollen, that powerful color fades as spring turns into summer.  Heat makes most leaves darken to a more uniform canopy of kelley green, warmer but lacking spark.

Mexican Muhlenbergia, related to our Carolina sweet grass of Gullah basket fame, serves fresh green all summer. Thread-like leaves catch light, dew, and the slightest breeze. It’s a plant to admire any time of day.

Standing alone, Mexican Muhly is like some giant upright ponytail fountain. Narrow at the bottom, constricted then pluming, spilling upward. When I was a child, there was a lady at church who had a fascinating silver ponytail, straight off the top of her head, we called her Miss Addie but she acted more our age than the age of any Miss’s around. She wore young girl skirts and told us fanciful stories of her hundred and one cats. Muhly reminds me of Miss Addie’s upside down ponytail bouncing as she laughed.

In garden combinations, those acid-green threads tickle up against a dark, solid, wide leaf castor bean.

A painterly combination with castor bean and elephant ear in one of our gardens in SC.

Think ahead to the days of mounding purple asters or rusty mums.  Of course in summer, bright pink Bradley crinum, the tall golden Autumn Minaret daylily and indigo salvia would be a painterly combination with wispy muhly pulling it all together. 

Dr. J.C. Raulston and the renowned Texas gardener John Fairy brought this plant into my life back in the late 1980s. In the Raleigh arboretum, Zone 7, a wispy clump struggled for years. I don’t know if it was climate or shade or lack of a real gardener.  Now that Raulston Arb has an amazing crew of horticulturists, plants probably thrive.  I’m proud that on the J.C. Raulston website, a number of the pictures of this plant are actually plantings that I did in Columbia!

But just down the road and throughout the deep south Mexican Muhly makes an elegant fountain in full, baking sun.

This Southwest native doesn’t flinch in our little Southeastern droughts. Plant in that hot dry spot on the side of the patio or alone in a big pot where the hose doesn’t reach.  Normally our rainfall is plenty to keep it lush but like most drought-tolerant plants, without any water, it can look sparse in stressful times.

And like any young plant, it needs extra care the first year. We grow small pots that will jump in the first season.  Plant in spring. Long term success with grasses really depends on that first year — weekly watering and regular fertilizer will make this grow like crazy and build the bulk it needs to survive without those things for years to come.

Planted with young trees, Muhly fills the space. Over time, it will be shaded out in this planting.

In December, the green leaves turn khaki and fall. The stems remain, looking a bit like tiny bamboo canes. Let those canes stand all winter – don’t cut it!  By mid-March, new chartreuse pushes out from the stems for another summer of growth.  You’ll have years of spring-fresh color.  Like filler in a vase of flowers, Mexican Muhly makes things hazy and romantic.

Finally, a note on habitat and culture:  Muhlenbergia dumosa grows naturally on rocky slopes, canyon ledges, and cliffs in oak-pine forests and open prairie from 2,000 to 6,000 feet in elevations in southern Arizona to southern Mexico from southern Baja California and the Chihuahuan Desert region. Many plants from that region and altitude suffer in our humidity but Muhly takes advantage of the extra water and jumps.  If it could stand up straight, it may be 6 feet tall. But where’s the fun in that? Even the most full, happy clumps bend so the overall height is usually about 4 feet, flowing and fun and full of determination and zest for life. Just like Miss Addie’s ponytail that in my mind, has never quit defying gravity as it bounced along to her happy stories.


Muhly by a baking concrete sidewalk in Savanah GA.

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