There’s more to little bluestem than its name suggests. This small native grass has a bluish tinge in spring and summer, which creates a beautiful background to summer perennials. In the fall, though, the grass moves from the sideline into the limelight as the blades turn a deep red-bronze color and the purplish flowers atop the stalks turn into feathery silver-white seed heads. Unlike many other grasses, little bluestem retains some color in its foliage throughout the winter.
Common name: Little Bluestem
Botanical name: Schizachyrium scoparium
Plant type: Grass
Zones: 2 to 9
Height: 2 to 4 feet
· Sun: Full sun to part shade
· Soil: Average, well-drained. Not good in heavy clay.
· Moisture: Average. Drought-tolerant when established.
· Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil.
· Pruning: Cut last year’s foliage to the ground in late winter or early spring.
· Fertilizer: None needed.
· By seed or division.
Pests and diseases
· Not vulnerable to most pests or diseases.
· Because Schizachyrium scoparium is smaller than many ornamental grasses, it’s well-suited to small gardens.
· Plant little bluestem where its fall color will combine with autumn stand-outs like asters, chrysanthemums, and tall sedums.
· Little bluestem works in perennial beds as well as prairie settings.
· Leave the stalks throughout the winter. Birds feed on the seeds, and the clumps add structure and movement to the winter landscape.
· Caterpillars and other insects feed on the leaves of little bluestem.
· The foliage of S. scoparium ‘The Blues’ is more intensely blue than the species.
· S. scoparium ‘Blaze’ has striking red fall color that fades to pink in winter.
All in the family
· Little bluestem is one of the dominant grasses in the tallgrass prairie. It’s closely related to another native prairie grass, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). In fact, it used to be called (and is still sometimes sold as) Andropogon scoparius.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)