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Little Bluestem
(Andropogon scoparius or Schizachyrium scoparius)

by Virginia Chatfield

Family: Gramineae

Habitat: Little Bluestem is a characteristic prairie species, but in Michigan it is more often seen spreading along roadsides and railroad tracks, on jack pine plains, sand dunes, shores, and in sandy old fields. It has been located in several Michigan counties.

Description: Little Bluestem is a native warm-season perennial grass. Growth begins in early April, with seed stalks from 2 to 4 feet tall appearing from late August to October. It can be identified by its flat, bluish-colored basal shoots and leaf blades, which tend to fold. Summer leaf coloration ranges through a variety of blue and green hues, with bronze-red to orange leaves topped by fluffy, silvery-white seed heads in fall.

Seed and Cultivation: Little Bluestem is easily propagated from seed or by division. To produce transplants, sow seed 1/4 inch deep in summer (late June to early July) or divide mature plants in spring or fall. The older the plant, the more difficult it is to divide because of a dense root system which extends 5–6 feet. On permanent sites, sow unstratified seed in fall, stratified seed in spring, or use transplants in fall or spring This easy-care, tough, and drought-tolerant grass grows on medium and dry soils. Since it is a bunch grass, little Bluestem does not spread by runners but will produce seedlings in the spring, which may be weeded out to contain its spread.

Related Species: There are only three grasses from the Andropogon genus native to Michigan, although there are at least seven of this genus native to the U.S. The scientific name, Andropogon, is from two Greek words: Aner (andr-), meaning man, and pogon, meaning beard. Thus the bluestems are often referred to as “beardgrass.” Most grasses have hollow stems, but the bluestems have pithy stems like corn.

Broomsedge, Andropogon virginicus, looks very much like Little Bluestem in the summer but has a less fine appearance in the fall and a soft, golden-tan color. It has a coarse, shallow-feeding root system and may often be pulled up by hand. According to Edward Voss’s Michigan Flora Part 1, it is much less common in Michigan than the other bluestems. Farmers consider it a poor range plant, and it is not relished by livestock. In areas where it is common, it is one of the first perennials to move into old sandy fields, and if undisturbed, may form a solid, pure stand.

The other bluestem is Big Bluestem, or Turkey Foot. It is found in areas similar to Little Bluestem habitats, but also in oak woods and on bog borders, so it will take a little shade and moist soil conditions. It is quite a bit larger than Little Bluestem and will grow 3–8 feet, with roots extending 6–7 feet! A common component of the tallgrass prairie and an aggressive plant, Big Bluestem will even bear seed the first year under favorable conditions. It develops a beautiful reddish-brown and blue, turkey-foot-shaped flower head in late summer and is considered a high-quality forage grass for livestock and excellent nesting cover. This grass is even more widely distributed in Michigan counties than Little Bluestem.

Landscape Uses: Grasses provide habitat needs in rural areas or large yards for many ground-nesting birds like pheasants, mallards, blue-winged teal, meadowlarks, dickcissels, bobolinks, and vesper sparrows. This habitat also provides hunting sites for red foxes, red-tailed hawks, kestrels, northern harriers, short-eared owls, coyotes, long-tailed weasels, and striped skunks.

Little Bluestem is native in all states except California, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada. At one time it was the most abundant grass in the midlands of America. It provides nutritious grazing for livestock during the growing season and has been used for hay since the first days of settlement. Cattle were for many years shipped from the south and southwest to fatten on the Little Bluestem ranges in the Kansas Flint Hills and the Osage Hills of Oklahoma.

Planting Design Combinations: Little Bluestem is very useful in garden borders as well as in large plantings because it is relatively short and mixes well with mid-height perennials. Lovely as a fine, blue-hued complement to summer wildflowers, it is spectacular in the fall with goldenrods and asters. Even on into the winter, its warm russet tones against evergreens, snow, or the dark grey bark of trees enrich the landscape with a subtle beauty.

Article reprinted from the Summer 2000 issue of the Flint Wild Ones Newsletter.
Copyright © 2000 Wild Ones–Natural Landscapers, Ltd.

 

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