Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a warm-season perennial bunchgrass native to much of the United States. It is native to prairies, fields, clearings, hills, limestone glades, roadsides, waste areas and open woods from Alberta to Quebec south to Arizona and Florida. It was one of the dominant grasses of the vast tallgrass prairie region which once covered rich and fertile soils in many parts of central North America.
It can grow up to four feet tall with a two-foot spread and is considered one of the most ornamental of all grasses due to its bronze-orange fall foliage color. The foliage of this natural beauty adds a kaleidoscope of pastel colors in summer and coppery tones in fall. Little bluestem features upright clumps of slender, flat, linear green leaves, with each leaf having a tinge of blue at the base. Purplish-bronze flowers appear in 3-inch long racemes on branched stems rising above the foliage in August. Flowers are followed by clusters of fluffy, silvery-white seed heads which are attractive and often persist into February winter conditions.
Little bluestem prefers well-drained infertile soils and is very drought tolerant once established. Will not tolerate damp, wet soils, clay soils, sandy soils, poor soils, acidic soils, and alkaline soils. It can be grown without irrigation in areas receiving at least 12 inches of annual rainfall. It easily grows in average, dry to medium moisture, well-drained soil in full sun. It also tolerates high heat and humidity. Little bluestem requires nearly full sun for upright growth and looks best when cut back in early spring, allowing new leaf blades to fill in. Shade, excess fertility, and too much moisture will all contribute to lax, floppy growth.
Little bluestem has been used extensively in prairie restoration projects primarily because of its adaptation to a diversity of sites, drought tolerance, growth habit, and wildlife appeal. However, it is becoming more popular for home landscaping because it is a colorful and easy-care addition. It is an ornamental grass for borders, cottage gardens, wild gardens, wood margins, meadows or prairie-like settings. Little bluestem is also a good low-maintenance selection for sunbaked areas. They establish quickly on disturbed soils—perfect for banks, slopes, and restorations. They also shine in meadows, prairies, and mixed plantings.
Little bluestem begins growth in late spring after cool-season species have already developed. It has been observed that little bluestem phenology follows a well-defined pattern. Periods of active growth as well as stage of maturity are directly related to the length of the growing season. Cut to the ground in late winter to early spring.
It tolerates glyphosate when dormant, and other herbicides as labeled for grasses. Weed control can be accomplished by mowing, especially the first year when the planted grass is short. It is minimally affected by fire if burned dormant and changes little in frequency of occurrence due to fire. Little bluestem is relatively resistant to fire under moist conditions.
This plant may become weedy or invasive in some regions or habitats and may displace more desirable vegetation if not properly managed. The seed is light and fluffy, and may spread to the surrounding areas, especially in a garden or landscape setting. Seed is generally dispersed a short distance from the parent plants. The maximum dispersal is only 5 to 6 feet and seedling vigor is weak.
Livestock & Wildlife
Little Bluestem also provides food and shelter for wildlife, including birds and butterflies. It produces fair forage for livestock and its seed is eaten by songbirds and upland game birds. This species provides fair to good forage while young. It is rated fair for cattle and horses, but is usually too coarse for sheep and goats. Little bluestem is one of the best grasses for nesting and roosting habitat.
The clump type of growth habit and many fine leaves at the base provide excellent nesting sites. The seeds are consumed by small mammals and birds, including upland game birds, rosy finches and juncos, as well as chipping, field, and tree sparrows. The seeds are of high value especially as a food source for birds that spend the winter on grasslands, such as prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. Meadowlarks nest in areas where little bluestem grows. The dusky skipper butterfly caterpillars overwinter in tube tents above the base of the clumps.