Information About Little Bluestem Grass


Little Bluestem Care: Tips For Growing Little Bluestem Grass

By Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Little bluestem is found in many types of soil, particularly well-drained, nearly infertile soil. Read this article for little bluestem information so you can decide if this interesting plant is right for your landscape.


To determine if a plant is sufficiently cold hardy, the USDA created numbered zones indicating winter low temperatures the lower the zone number the colder the winter.

  • If the coldest winter temperature expected in your area is -15°F (zone 5) then any plants rated zones 3-5 will survive the winter temperatures in your area.
  • If you live in very warm winter areas (zones 9-11) plants with zones 3-4 ratings are not recommended. The lack of freezing winter temperatures do not provide a time for winter dormancy (rest).

Find Your Planting Zone:

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(24- 48 ” tall x 18-24 ” wide) 'The Blues' is an outstanding blue-leaved form of little bluestem grass. The burgundy-red fall foliage is just as ornamental and provides late season garden color. Little bluestem is a native grass that thrives in drier, poor soil conditions too much water or a rich soil can result in floppy growth. Planting ornamental grass provides year-round structure, texture, and beauty to the garden, while offering habitat for beneficial insects. Suggested companion plants include large growing B eardtongues (Penstemon), C oneflower (Echinacea), and B lack E yed S usan (Rudbeckia).

No longer available this season.

As soon as your order is placed you will receive a confirmation email. You will receive a second email the day your order ships telling you how it has been sent. Some perennials are shipped as potted plants, some as perennial roots packed in peat. The ‘Plant Information’ section describes how that item will ship. All perennials and spring-planted bulbs are packaged to withstand shipping and are fully-guaranteed. Please open upon receipt and follow the instructions included.

Perennials and spring-planted bulbs are shipped at the proper planting time for your hardiness zone. Perennial and spring-planted bulb orders will arrive separately from seeds. If your order requires more than one shipment and all items are shipping to the same address, there is no additional shipping charge. See our shipping information page for approximate ship dates and more detailed information. If you have any questions, please call Customer Service toll-free at (800) 925-9387 or contact us by email.


Little Bluestem Facts

  • Little Bluestem gets its common name from the blue/green color of the grass
  • It is hardy for USDA garden zones 3-9. Check your USDA garden zone here.
  • Can grow in almost any soil as long as it drains well. So, no rain gardens!
  • Over a dozen beneficial insects feed on Little Bluestem
  • The cotton/fluffy seed is eaten by songbirds in the winter
  • Little Bluestem is present throughout all southern Canadian Provinces, and all 48 Continental United States
  • The Scientific Name of Little Bluestem is Schizachyrium scoparium

MSU Extension Gardening in Michigan

An alternative to turf lawns for the home gardener.

Photo 1. Grasses along a sidewalk add texture and diminish the bleakness of the winter months. Photo by David Lowenstein, MSU Extension.

Turf lawns are a feature of most residential Michigan landscapes. Under ideal conditions, turf management requires mowing, weeding and occasional fertilizer application. Yet, most lawns represent a single plant species, Kentucky bluegrass or a mix of two to three grasses. This landscape provides consistency for management, erosion control, greater temperature regulation than asphalt and paved surfaces, and offers a safe surface for recreation.

However, there are also several drawbacks to residential landscapes that exclusively use turf as a ground cover. First, lawns offer minimal resources to wildlife. Second, in periods of drought, it is water intensive to maintain green color throughout the season. On a national level, Milesi et al. (2005) estimate that turf’s irrigation requirements classify it as North America’s largest irrigated crop. Finally, the inputs required for a lush lawn can runoff into local waterways when applied at the incorrect rates or just before a heavy rain event.

The recreational and aesthetic value of a turf lawn are hard to replace. Converting a portion of a turf lawn into another plant type would diversify residential landscapes and provide additional habitat for wildlife and insects. One option is to transform a section of a yard into a grasses or sedges garden. These plants are more recognizable in the margins of commercial development and sometimes on the public right of way (Photo 1). In sites with full sun to partial shade, the addition of native grasses and sedges should be considered for improved soil health, water retention, and reduced inputs in plant production. Drought tolerance and limited management requirements make grasses and sedges an option to consider for the Michigan gardener.

Photo 2. Demonstration site prior to tilling (left) and after existing turf removed (right). The soil was loosened using a two-tined tiller (pictured in lower center). Photo by David Lowenstein, MSU Extension.

Installing a turf-alternative garden

Mechanical removal is the simplest way to remove turfgrass from an existing site. The soil should be loosened through roto-tilling a strip of grass (Photo 2). Plants should be spaced at least several inches apart to allow room for growth. Michigan State University Extension recommends choosing a variety of plant species for home gardens, and these five plants are a representative group rather than an exclusive list of potential grasses and sedges (Table 1).

Table 1. Growth attributes and list of species planted in turf alternative garden.

Full sun to partial shade

Purple/red color in fall, needs well-drained soil.

36 – 72 (depends on variety)

Full sun to partial shade

Excellent for erosion control, tolerant of dry and most areas.

Grows in dry or moist soils.

Full sun to partial shade

Grows in drained to moist soil, good option for rain garden.

Grasses and sedges in the fall

Growing grasses and sedges adds variety in texture and color to gardens. A grass and sedge garden will offer a difference in color during the season and plants that provide features including seed heads into fall and winter. The height and density of taller grasses will also suppress weeds. While most grass species won’t produce flowers that are attractive to pollinators, the addition of a micro-habitat can provide a refuge for beneficial insects that may manage herbivores in nearby ornamental flowers and vegetables.

Once the fall frost arrives, the above-ground portions of the plants can remain upright for a few weeks longer. The above-ground foliage must be trimmed to the ground in early winter to allow space for new growth. In little bluestem, the reddish color is retained throughout fall (Photo 3). Stems do not need to be cut until early spring. The next article on grasses and sedges will describe annual maintenance and fertilizer practices to keep your turf-alternative garden productive.

Photo 3. Little bluestem foliage retains purple color through fall. Photo taken Nov. 20, 2020. Photo by David Lowenstein, MSU Extension.

Grasses and sedges demonstration garden

In June 2020, I established a grass and sedge demonstration garden outside the Michigan State University Extension office in Macomb County. Clay soils dominated the site, and the garden received partial shade. Five plant species (Table 1) were characterized for their growing patterns and ability to persist with weeding and supplemental irrigation, as needed, every two to three weeks. Each plant species was purchased as trays of plugs from a commercial nursery and planted in rows of five to seven plants with six rows per plant species (Photo 4). Every two to three weeks, I examined the growth of each plant, plant health and flowering patterns.

Photo 4. Turf-alternative demonstration garden after planting on June 19, 2020. Photo by David Lowenstein, MSU Extension.

Growth pattern of each plant species

All plants, except for Pennsylvania sedge, reached maximum heights above 10 inches. Although this species is known for its low maximum height, leaf tips regularly browned and did not appear healthy (Photo 5). Pennsylvania sedge establishes and spreads slowly, and evaluation of plant growth in future seasons will determine if there is improved spread or if the species failed to establish at this site.

Photo 5. Pennsylvania sedge with browned and curled tips. Photo by David Lowenstein, MSU Extension.

A majority of the selected turf-alternative species thrived in an environment with less irrigation and mowing compared to a typical lawn. Switchgrass and tussock sedge grew the quickest, reaching average maximum heights of 29.6 and 23 inches, respectively, by Sept. 17. Little bluestem remained a similar height for the first 30 days before rapidly growing beginning in early August until it reached an average maximum height of 21.6 inches (Figure 1). Blue grama and switchgrass started flowering in late July, while little bluestem began flowering in mid-August. Including the floral structures of little bluestem, blue gramma and switchgrass would have resulted in an even higher recorded height for each plant species.

Figure 1. Growth of the five turf alternatives after planting at the MSU Macomb demonstration garden on June 19, 2020. Each symbol represents average of plant height across each species. Plants: BG = Blue grama, CP = Pennsylvania sedge, CS = Tussock sedge, LB = Little bluestem, PV = Switchgrass.

By the end of the growing season, most of the plants filled in the empty space between plants at the start of the growing season (Photo 6). This data only represents a single season of growth. Measurements in future years will further clarify plant growth patterns over time and variation due to annual weather conditions.

Photo 6. Demonstration garden with fully grown plants in September 2020. Though the sign was moved, photo is taken in the same direction as Photo 3. Photo by David Lowenstein, MSU Extension.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit https://extension.msu.edu. To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit https://extension.msu.edu/newsletters. To contact an expert in your area, visit https://extension.msu.edu/experts, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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Plants→Schizachyrium→Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Botanical names:
Schizachyrium scoparium Accepted
Andropogon scoparius Synonym

General Plant Information (Edit)
Plant Habit: Grass/Grass-like
Life cycle: Perennial
Sun Requirements: Full Sun
Full Sun to Partial Shade
Water Preferences: Mesic
Dry Mesic
Dry
Soil pH Preferences: Neutral (6.6 – 7.3)
Slightly alkaline (7.4 – 7.8)
Moderately alkaline (7.9 – 8.4)
Minimum cold hardiness: Zone 3 -40 °C (-40 °F) to -37.2 °C (-35)
Maximum recommended zone: Zone 9b
Plant Height : 2 to 3 feet (61-91cm) 18 inches on droughty sites to 3 feet on deep, fertile soils.
Plant Spread : 18 to 24 inches (46-61cm)
Leaves: Good fall color
Unusual foliage color
Other: leaves turn an attractive reddish rusty color after frost
Fruit: Showy
Other: The seed develops to a fluffy silver-white in clusters to about three inches long. The plumes are showy when seed has matured and can add interest to a cut arrangement.
Bloom Size: Under 1"
Flower Time: Late summer or early fall
Suitable Locations: Xeriscapic
Uses: Provides winter interest
Erosion control
Cut Flower
Will Naturalize
Wildlife Attractant: Birds
Resistances: Deer Resistant
Drought tolerant
Propagation: Seeds: Suitable for wintersowing
Other info: approximately 240000 seeds per pound
Propagation: Other methods: Division
Miscellaneous: Tolerates poor soil
Conservation status: Least Concern (LC)


Growing only 2 to 3 feet tall, Little Bluestem works well in natural prairie plantings or grouped with other perennials. It also has very nice green, blue, and later red coloring. Fall seed stalks are fluffy white and delicate. Good for back-lighting. This plant can take drier conditions.

Schizachyrium scoparium is a larval host plant for numerous Skipper Butterflies, including Aragos Skipper, Dusted Skipper, Leonard's Skipper, Cobweb Skipper, Indian Skipper, Swarthy Skipper, and Crossline Skipper.

According to NPIN, this plant also provides nesting materials and structure for native bees, as well as cover and seeds for birds.

Little Bluestem is my favorite ornamental grass. It is beautiful but not real flashy. It is easy to work with and feels good to touch. It is native to eastern North America, It is one of the major prairie grasses of the Midwest and it is found wild in special areas of the East in dry soils as at the dunes of the Delmarva Peninsula shore and in the serpentine barrens of southeast PA and northern MD. It is sold at a few larger, diverse conventional nurseries, by some mail order nurseries, but mostly by any native plant nursery. I bought mine by mail from Prairie Nursery in central Wisconsin. It is not at all common in the average yard and landscape I'm probably the only one in my town that has some. It is used by some professional landscapers that know about it and it is often used by those who love native plant landscapes. This clump grass does lodge some when its flowering stems get full-sized in later summer, but in autumn its foliage and stems become dry and then it stands upright again. It gets a nice orangy fall color and it does well all during winter to be left alone. One can cut the grass down in early spring. One can also set fire to the low crown a few inches high after the plant is cut down, and it likes the burn and springs back soon. In prairie or native plant restorations on parkland or forest preserves, land managers burn their native meadow or prairie in early spring to rejuvenate the vegetative mass and help keep out invasive plants.


Watch the video: Grass Identification: Little Bluestem


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