Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) is native to much of California. Some sources say that it is forage for deer but other sources suggest that deer actually avoid it. Not being a deer expert, I can’t really say what is true and what isn’t. However, I do know that this well-behaved, non-invasive perennial prefers sandy or well-draining soils and needs full sun to thrive. It flourishes even in difficult spots that are exposed to reflected heat.

101227_muhlenbergia_rigens1Deer grass is anything but rare here in the Sacramento Valley. It is often planted in public places (for example the parking lot of the West Sacramento IKEA store where it elevates what would otherwise be a pretty dreary concrete landscape) and looks stunning in mass plantings or combined with finer-textured grasses like Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissima).

Each plant can form a rather sizable clump up to 5 ft. wide by 2-4 ft. high, with the flower spikes reaching another 2 ft. above the clump. It must have enough space to achieve its full potential. I often see it in residential landscapes where it looks lost, crammed into a planting bed with other perennials. That is the very reason why I haven’t introduced deer grass into our garden: We simply don’t have the room to dedicate to it. However, if we had acreage, I’d create an area with nothing but ornamental grasses, and deer grass would feature very prominently.

101227_muhlenbergia_rigens2In the meantime, I enjoy this majestic, if coarse, grass wherever I come across it, such as today at the Sundial Bridge in Redding, CA. (I’ll write a separate post about the Sundial Bridge later this week.)

Deer grass has excellent drought tolerance and is therefore well suited to a dry garden. It is native to USDA hardiness zones 7-10 but it may do well in colder climates as well.

Deer grass is available at most nurseries in our area. If you have the space and love ornamental grasses or minimalist landscapes, give this one a try!


  1. I may have to give this one a try, although I'd be pushing the hardiness limits, and am concerned about winter wetness. Looks worth trying though. Are the seed heads "loose" like a feather grass, or more like a pennisetum's? I can't find good photos.

  2. Alan, I can get you a 4" plant in the spring. They sell them everywhere.

    The seed heads aren't prominent the way they are with pennisetum or miscanthus. All you really see are the taller stalks that are quite rigid--I guess that's where the species name "rigens" comes from. The seeds are along the sides of those rigid stalks.

    Here is a good photo (I quite like the way deer grass looks in a container):

  3. That explains why every photo has the long stalks but no apparent seed heads -- I thought they just hadn't emerged yet. Nice and different! Thanks for the plant offer -- add it to "the list". =)

  4. I'm a big fan of Calatrava's but yet to see his bridge to the North.
    I went all the way to Valencia, Spain, however, to see his work on the City of Arts & Sciences and Turia Gardens!!
    All best for 2011,
    aka Alice's Garden Travel Buzz

  5. Alice,

    Happy New Year to you as well! I'm planning on writing a separate post about the Sundial Bridge with more photos. We pass through Redding several times a year (my in-laws live in Mount Shasta, an hour north of Redding) and often stop at the Sundial Bridge. It's "just" a foot bridge, but that makes it even more exciting because you get to explore it up close.

  6. I've been wanting one of these for the past year or so, but sort of feel the same way you do...I just don't think I have room to do it would get "lost" in my borders :-(

  7. It's called "deer grass" because in thicket the deer can hide their fawns in it. The tender shoots (when the first emerge and reach full length were used by the Native Americans for weaving. At the right time they easily come off the plant.

  8. I have these along my walkway & they are huge I need to know how to cut them back nicely?

    1. You can cut them back to the ground in late winter to enjoy all-new leaves.


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