For winter color in gardens of the desert Southwest, gardeners need look no further than the ornamental native grasses. Of the many kinds available, the ones that rise to the top for their adaptability, ease of growing, and beauty belong to the genus Muhlenbergia. These perennial bunch grasses are well adapted to heat and cold (growing as well in Palm Springs, California, as in Las Vegas, Nevada), are hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 7, can tolerate drought and flooding, aren't invasive, and once established send up a colorful flower stalk each fall. From the more than 300 species of Muhlenbergia, we've picked the top three.
Probably the most colorful is M. capillaris 'Regal Mist'. This Texas native grows 3 feet tall and wide. In October, it sends up a 1-foot-tall, pink cotton candy-like flower head. The flower head's color lasts for up to two months.
M. rigens, also known as deer grass, grows 4 feet tall and wide. Its foliage stays blue-green down to 20F, providing an attractive bushlike appearance in winter and silver swordlike flower spikes in fall.
M. lindheimer 'Autumn Glow' has the leaf and plant shape of M. rigens but a flower stalk and seed head reminiscent of M. capillaris 'Regal Mist', although not as showy. The flower stalk turns a striking golden color starting in October. 'Autumn Glow' and 'Regal Mist' look beautiful planted together.
Muhlenbergia can be grouped together in islands, planted around fountains or pools, or planted near roads or walkways. They are best planted in fall, are not finicky about their soil, and once established require little watering or fertilizing. Cut the plants to the ground in late winter, removing all the dead foliage, and they'll regrow and look beautiful again for the rest of the year. Check garden centers in the Southwest for these ornamental grasses.
Charlie Nardozzi is the senior horticulturist of the National Gardening Association.