Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium: Ornamental bunch grass for fall color
Description: Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, is a mid-prairie bunchgrass native to a broad swath of eastern and central North America. Its native habitat includes prairie, meadows, pastures, hillsides and slopes and the edges of woodlands. It is an important species in the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem. Little Bluestem’s finely textured alternate, simple, leaves form dense mounds growing 18-30 inches tall. Beginning in August, thin bluish-green stems appear, which give Little Bluestem its common name. The stems may reach as high as 3 ft tall in September and bear the flower stalks. Little Bluestem turns radiantly golden to a rosy reddish brown color in the fall and provides winter interest.
Flowers and Seeds: Little Bluestem blooms in the fall, but the blooms are insignificant. The white tufted seed heads that follow are quite pretty. Seeds may be collected following flowering.
Planting sites: Little Bluestem thrives in full sun and partial shade. It tolerates a range of soil pH.
Watering Instructions: Little Bluestem should be given supplemental water at the time that it is first planted. After it is established, it is extremely drought tolerant. It should have adequate drainage; it will not tolerate “wet feet.”
Comments: Little Bluestem’s late summer blue-green foliage turning to mahogany red during the autumn through winter makes it very desirable for the garden. It is also visually stunning planted en masse. It is perennial and will enlarge every year. A number of cultivars are available, including several selected for smaller size and particular fall color. Little Bluestem is the larval host for several butterflies, including the Indian Skippers, Crossline Skippers, Ottoe Skippers, Dixie Skippers and Cobweb Skippers. Its seeds are valuable for small birds. Little Bluestem is easily propagated by root division or by seed collected in the fall. Seed may need a cold treatment before germination. Consider planting Little Bluestem instead of non-native grasses like fountain grass or Pampas grass and using it in combination with other native grasses for a variety of color, texture and size.
Written by Dr. Becca Dickstein