Autumn Grasses

Along with a bevy of flowery blooms, late summer and autumn showcases the graceful good looks of native grasses. Native grasses are attractive year-round but really strut their stuff in autumn. I’ve grown the shade-loving Inland Sea Oats, Chasmanthium latifolium for years and love them, but grasses requiring the intense Texas sun I could only admire in other gardens. Now that my front garden is sun-drenched, native grasses have a place and they have shined.

I’m besotted with Gulf Muhly, Muhlenbergia capillaris. I was never successful in growing these pink, frothy pretties, until appropriate, sunny conditions developed. I now have plenty of sun-baked spots and four new Gulf Muhly have nestled in nicely.

Two older Gulf Muhlies have grown well in another spot for a couple of years, but in my re-vamped sunshiny space, there are an additional four individuals. These muhlies are slender, shapely green throughout spring and summer, but in October, their pink-purple plumes add gauzy elegance and a swath of color in the last days of the growing season.

A closer view of this purple-pink magic.

I planted an arc of four muhlies, though only one has powered up the color in full. These have been in the ground less than a year and since this photo was taken, the other three, while still behind in the fluff, have filled out well. Gorgeous whether in sunny or cloudy conditions, they add softness and movement in the garden.

I have successfully grown a couple of Lindheimer’s or Big Muhly, Muhlenbergia lindheimeri, for a few years. Another beautiful plant year round, the lacelike plumes develop in autumn, catching the sun’s rays and swaying with the wind.

These three fit well together in the garden!

The halo of bright green behind the middle Big Muhly is a Bamboo Muhly, Muhlenbergia dumosa. Native to Arizona, it’s a large grass that grows well in sun and shade. The even-taller yellow flowers belong to Plateau Goldeneye

This is my oldest Big Muhly and it’s always a stunner.

Spring and summer silvery Mexican Feather Grass, Nassella tenuissima, have switched their colors to autumn toasty, with a hint of sage. These small grasses fit well in a variety of settings and like all the native grasses, are tough, hardy plants. I’ve had more luck with this grass in part-shade, but am pleased with how they’ve fared in full sun.

In the new sun garden I’ve added three Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium. I like this little grass, tidy and dainty, though confess some disappointment that its autumn color hasn’t yet materialized as advertised.

The photo is busy. The two Bluestems are overtaken by some pushy Rock Rose, Pavonia lasiopetala.

You can see the green clumps and the stems that shoot upwards in fall. There are even some cottony seed heads already formed on one of the plants.

This spot actually gets a little bit of fall shade as the angle of the sun is lower, so I’m in the process of moving the trio to a nearby spot which I think will get full sun in summer and fall. In fact, the third of the trio I’ve already moved:

This one has some nice burgundy/rusty foliage action, not fully in fall garb, but more in line with the typical autumn colors of Little Bluestem. This individual never developed its vertical stems because when I allow my younger cat, Lena, in the garden (supervised and only for a few minutes!) she loves to munch this particular grass.

Maybe Little Bluestem needs something eating it to get fall color??

This post completes a short series highlighting the autumn Texas garden delights of birds, blooms, pollinators, and grasses. Our summers are hot, but the payoff in utilizing native plants in our wonderfully long growing season is an autumn filled with color, movement, texture, and life. And isn’t that what’s a garden should be?

17 thoughts on “Autumn Grasses

  1. Beautiful combinations! I’m a zone too north to grow the Muhly grass, but purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) has a similar look and personality. I don’t have enough sun for it in my garden, though. I do grow N. Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) in my shady garden. Your grasses are all so elegant.

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  2. Grasses really do shine in autumn. I wish I could grow Muhly and Feather Grass, but our winter is too cold. But we do have sea oats and bluestem, which is so beautiful backlit by the sun in the fall and into winter if the snow doesn’t get too deep.
    I love the way you interplanted them with sage, another fine showy plant in late summer.

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    • I never mind a trip somewhere when the autumn grasses are in full swing. It’s a beautiful as springtime! I’m generally happy with the bluestem, but I think a move will help it next year.

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  3. You’ve done a mitzvah in extolling our great native grasses. “Besotted” is a good word—and one I’ve never seen in any blog—for your relationship to gulf muhly. Another first for me is to hear about a cat munching grass. Let’s hope your little bluestem turns richer colors next fall. The answer to the question in your last sentence is yes.

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    • I have indeed–I believe in doing my small part to heal the world. I love the word ‘besotted’–it’s so old-fashioned, I think. I doubt it’s a word common to gardening blogs, but I’ll be you’d be hard-pressed to find a gardener who isn’t besotted with at least one of their plants. 🙂 The bluestems are still very pretty, I was just hoping for a bit more of the burnished. As for Lena, I believe she thinks she’s a dog–she also drinks from the toilet.

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      • To my surprise, when I checked Google’s ngram viewer just now for the frequency of use of besotted in print, I found it has been rising since the 1950s and is now about the highest it’s been since it began declining in the 1830s. Of course those are relative frequencies, and it’s still hardly a common word, whether in gardening or anywhere else.

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  4. I commented to Steve this morning that even on the prairies the bluestems haven’t taken on that gorgeous rusty color this year. I’ve always been able to count on them for at least some fall color, but so far, no joy. They certainly have been well established in places like the Brazoria refuge, so maybe there’s just something about this year’s conditions that hasn’t allowed their color to develop so dramatically.

    The most Gulf Muhly I’ve ever seen was on the prairie at the Attwater preserve. I’d forgotten how beautiful it was until I looked back at some photos of it. I still get irritated when I remember the year the gardeners at a certain public place cut all the Muhly down to a height of about a foot, because the powers that be had decided it looked ‘messy.’ People!

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    • Oh, that’s really interesting about the ‘in nature’ bluestems not turning color, so maybe it isn’t just mine! Plants to vary, from season to season, depending on conditions. Thanks for that information.

      Ugh. That’s awful about the mutilated muhlies. Humans and their need to control. I cringe every time I see “tree work” in our neighborhood (and other places, as well). “People!” is just about all I can say, too!

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  5. That Muhle grass is just stunning! I put like five of them in a client’s garden in mid-October. Just last week, I read on a website based in North Carolina where they said to make sure to plant it in EARLY fall, to ensure its survival. So, now I’m a bit worried… I hope they make it through the winter. I want them to look like yours, next year!

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    • It’s a beauty, I’m so happy that I can now grow it and that it’ll be happy. I’ve seen it in Portland and Eugene, it grows beautifully there. I planted mine last November and while we don’t have as much cold weather as you have we definitely got into the low 20s last winter and the muhly came back. So, maybe you could plant it now…?

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