Little bluestem is a native, warm-season perennial. It was a dominant grass of the tallgrass prairie, which once spanned some 170 million acres across 14 midwestern states. Today, it may be found in tallgrass, mixed and shortgrass prairies, as well as old fields, open woods, and roadsides. Its common name refers to the blue color at the base of the stems. Plants are exceptionally cold-hardy (to Zone 3). Gardeners enjoy this plant for its multi-season interest, particularly the vibrant fall colors.
Little bluestem makes a great addition to the sunny perennial garden. Plants form an upright clump with narrow 12-inch-long leaves that can be blue, green, or a purplish-green in summer. The flowering stems range in height from 2 to 4 feet with flowers intermingling with and above the foliage. The species and cultivars are noted for beautiful fall color—shades of red, mauve, orange, rust, bronze, or coppery brown. The colors may persist into winter. Once the seeds mature, they offer a downy or fluffy look. Unlike some grasses that flop to the ground under snow or ice and stay there, little bluestem pops back up.
This is one tough perennial. It prefers full sun and average to dry soils, both alkaline and acidic. Because it develops deep fibrous roots, little bluestem has excellent drought tolerance once established. There’s no need for fertilizer or overly rich soil—either can make the plants floppy. A bonus—it has few pests or disease. In early spring (March or April), cut the dried leaves to just above the soil. As a warm-season grass, the leaves emerge when the soil warms in late spring. A note of caution—plants will fail in overly wet conditions or in deep shade. Little bluestem may self-seed, sometimes excessively. If that is a concern, cut off the flowers before the seeds develop.
Breeders have introduced numerous little bluestem cultivars, often selecting plants for more unusual fall colors. Schizachyrium scoparium'Jazz' and 'Twilight Zone' are two of the many little bluestem cultivars grown at the Garden. ‘Carousel' is a particularly handsome plant, introduced through a partnership between the Garden, the Morton Arboretum and the Ornamental Growers Association of Northern Illinois.
Little bluestem is a host plant for several varieties of skipper butterflies, which lay eggs on the leaves. Although the caterpillars will chew the foliage, damage is rarely noticeable. Other insects, such as the prairie walkingstick, the leaf-mining beetle Anisostena nigrita, black spittlebugs, grasshoppers, and leafhoppers may feed on the plant. These insects in turn provide food for other creatures. Seed-eating birds that are present in winter—field sparrows, tree sparrows, slate-colored juncoes—will eat the seeds.
Little bluestem can be used as a specimen plant but it is quite attractive when planted in large drifts. Pair it with flowering perennials that like the same soil, light and moisture conditions, such as butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Coreopsis, Liatris, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, purple prairie clover, sedum, Achillea and daisy (Leucanthemum).
Learn more about the Garden’s evaluation of ornamental grasses including little bluestem.
Here’s where you can find little bluestem and the cultivars at the Garden.
Get to Know Little Bluestem
“This native ornamental grass has life even in winter, as it sways back and forth in our windy environs,” said Galen Gates, former curator of perennial herbaceous plants. At 2 feet wide and tall, this grass has remarkable resilience that allows it to bend to the ground from ice and snow and then bounce back upright when free. “Its value is enhanced when backlit by morning and late afternoon sunlight,” said Gates.