Native Plant of the Week: Little Bluestem ~ Schizachyrium scoparium

Little Bluestem ~ Schizachyrium scoparium (Andropogon scoparius)

This is the time of year when Little Bluestem turns an amazing rusty red color. It is a much richer (darker) hue than the Big Bluestem fall color. Throughout much of the Midwest, you will see Little Bluestem growing along roadsides.

This prairie grass is a staple in short grass prairies. It has extensive (deep) root systems that allow it to thrive on drier and poorer prairie soils. This photo shows Little Bluestem in a short grass prairie remnant nearby our house.

This grass has many attractive characteristics - not just the late fall color. It is an upright, clump forming grass, reaching about 24-36" in height when flowering, and the new grass blades emerge anywhere from a very light blue to blue-green in color.

Like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), the flower stems alternate from blue-green to a rosy color between the nodes. We have quite a bit of variation in blade and node coloration within our own yard.

The seeds are sought after by birds in our yard in the late fall and winter. We often scare up Dark-Eyed Juncos, Sparrows and Chickadees foraging for the seeds. In the winter the snow will be dotted with seed debris around this grass.

Little Bluestem flowers from mid August into October in Minnesota. "Several pairs of spikelets occur on opposite sides of the raceme's rachis (central stem); this rachis is covered with long white hairs and it tends to zigzag between the spikelets as they become mature." (Illinois Wildflowers)

Because of all these interesting attributes, Little Bluestem is becoming a fairly well known prairie grass. It is cultivated by the horticultural industry and readily available for landscape use at local nurseries.

Image Source: Wikipedia
It is an important food source for wildlife other than birds too. The Illinois Wildflowers website lists several species of Skippers, grasshoppers, leafhoppers and other insects that feed on this grass.