Little Bluestem

By on February 27, 2013

Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, is one of the three dominant species that make up our tall and short grass prairies. It can be found from Canada to Mexico and from the east coast to the west coast.

The height will vary from one foot up to three or four feet, depending on the soil and rainfall it received. I recently observed the grass in our local school rain garden and it was five feet tall and falling over. Junction receives an average of 17-23 inches of rain a year, and it definitely had not been a wet year, but the design of the garden had held the moisture, letting the Little Bluestem and the other natives there grow larger.

Photo courtesy Native American Seed

Photo courtesy Native American Seed

Little Bluestem is suitable for any area. As well as being a foundation species for both the tall and short grass prairies, it is also beautiful in commercial and suburban landscapes. It is a major component in any native restoration mix because of its easy establishment and its ability to grow in almost any soil type.

One characteristic that makes Little Bluestem a favorite for prairie restoration is its proven establishment rate on thin, infertile, highly erodible soils.

Like all natives it does not like additional fertilizers and does not need pesticides as it doesn’t have any pests. Although Little Bluestem is tolerant of a wide range of soils, it will not tolerate wetlands or sub-irrigated sites.

Little Bluestem is ideal for landscaping because it is a medium-sized clumping grass that grows readily from seed. It is a lovely blue-grey color in spring through the summer. During the late summer and early fall, the seeds begin to mature, becoming white and fuzzy. By late fall and early winter the grass is unmistakable — rich bronze-colored stems sporting their white, fuzzy heads.

For the agricultural producer, young Little Bluestem provides excellent forage for grazers; however, when the grass begins to mature, most livestock will find it unpalatable, especially if anything better can be found. It also will make an excellent hay crop.

For property owners with a wildlife valuation, Little Bluestem will qualify for food and habitat. The seeds are nutritious to birds — the lesser goldfinch loves it. Quail and dove as well as other mammals use the grass for cover from flying predators such as hawks and owls and as nesting material.

Since Little Bluestem is such a popular and necessary restoration, forage and landscape species, much time and money has been spent in developing different cultivars and improved selections.

However, a note of caution about the process of developing the cultivars and improved selections needs to be sounded. It has bred out of Little Bluestem the ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. If this adaptability is important to landowners, then using native varieties might be the best idea.