Big Bluestem Facts
- It is the tallest of the North American prairie grasses
- Big Bluestem is hardy from zones 3-9
- Is very valuable forage for cattle, bison, other mammals
- The foliage is also eaten by many beneficial insects, giving this plant high ecological value
- Native Americans chewed the root for stomach pains
- The grass by itself, when dried was used by Native Americans in a variety of ways
- Big Bluestem is deer resistant
- The Scientific Name of Big Bluestem is Andropogon gerardii
Big Bluestem Identification and Physical DescriptionThis tall perennial grass that is blueish green during the Spring and Summer, and eventually turns to gold/brown tan. By August it should be reaching its maximum height for the growing season, which in optimum conditions (full sun, moist soil) should be 8-10′.
Stalk / StemVery erect and large, the stalks of Big Bluestem all emanate form a central clump.
LeavesLeaves are long and slender, being only 1/2″-1″ across but 10″ long or more. They wrap around the stalk by more than 50% of the stalk diameter.
FlowerThe flower of Big Bluestem is paired spikelets that occur along the upper stems of the stalk. The top of the stalk will split into 3 smaller stems, each containing dozens of spikelets. The color is reddish-purple when blooming. The color will change to a golden brown in Autumn.
RootRoots of Big Bluestem consist of short rhizomes that go a couple inches deep, and fibrous roots that can extend 10′ deep in the soil. Most of the root mass is concentrating in the top 1-2′ of the soil. Interestingly, recent studies are suggesting that the deep roots don’t seem to be that important for water uptake. So perhaps the extremely deep roots serve another primary purpose?
Growing Conditions for Big BluestemBig Bluestem grows best in full sun and slightly moist soil. It can take dry conditions also, but may not be as tall and vigorous. It is quite versatile in that it can grow in almost any soil type, from clay to loam, and even slightly sandy. This was the most dominant prairie grass for it size and versatility. The optimum temperature for Big Bluestem to grow has been found to be 25 Celsius, or 77 Fahrenheit. So if temperatures are below or above this it will grow slower. How much slower will depend on the temperature.
How to care for Big BluestemIf you grow this in conditions that it prefers (full sun, moist soil) then you will have virtually no problems growing healthy plants. It requires basically no care.
MaintenanceIn Spring when insects are waking up, you can cut down and remove the stalks/foliage from the previous season. You can do this earlier, however there may be beneficial insects wintering inside the large stalks. So, I always suggest waiting until Spring temperatures have warmed sufficiently to where any larva would have emerged.
How to Establish Big BluestemGrowing Big Bluestem from seed is incredibly easy. The first year it will only grow to several feet high, but by the second or third year it should be topping 8-10′. The seed is exceptionally cheap too. I’ve purchased from Roundstone seed several times, and find the quality and prices to be exceptional. Also, I have no affiliation with this company whatsoever, I just really like buying grass seed from them. Below is my short process on germinating Big Bluestem.
We have ordered a variety of native flower seeds from Everwilde Farms, which you can order right from Amazon through our link on our RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS PAGE. (We may earn a small commission when you purchase through our links, at no cost to you. This helps support our website.)
Germinating Big Bluestem Seeds in Pots
- In late early Spring, fill 4″ (10 cm) pots with moist potting soil to 1/2″ (12 mm) from the top.
- Pack the potting soil so that it isn’t loose, but slightly firm.
- Sprinkle 5-10 seeds on top, and press them firmly into the soil
- Sprinkle a handful of potting soil on top of the pot, just dusting the seeds. I always make that I can still see some of the seeds, so that they are partially covered.
- Keep moist until germination.
Direct Sowing Big BluestemYou can also direct sow Big Bluestem in Autumn too. Just use a metal rake to disturb the top 1/2″ of soil, sprinkle seed in the area, and walk over it. The force from your shoes pressing the seed in the soil should be enough to maintain good soil/seed contact. Then, sprinkle a little bit of soil over the top to protect the seed from birds.
How to Save and Harvest Big Bluestem SeedOnce the seed head has turned brown and dried on the stalk for a week or two, you can collect them. Store them in a paper bag for a few weeks in a cool dry environment to allow the seed to dry completely. After this the seed can be stored for about six months and still be mostly viable.
Garden UsesThis plant may not be sold as an ornamental, but it should be. The blue green color is gorgeous during the Spring. And the late Summer bloom is very pretty too. As stated in the intro, when this plant sways in the breeze it is almost hypnotizing. So, you can use this plant as a border, in a wildflower garden, or as an individual accent in a flowerbed. Just make sure you give it some room per our reference table (bottom of this article) in a flowerbed. We have several specimens in our backyard micro-prairie. These grasses help provide support for other species that can droop over under their own weight. You can learn how to make your own small prairie by clicking below. It really is a great way to bring on the wildlife!
FaunaThis plant is host to many insects, and provides forage for other insects. At least 12 different grass hoppers and many different skipper moths feed on the foliage. A partial list of Skippers caterpillars that feed on the foliage is below.
- Byssus Skipper
- Cobweb Skipper
- Dakota Skipper
- Delaware Skipper
- Dusted Skipper
- Ottoe Skipper
Pests and diseasesNone.
|Big Bluestem Grass Reference Table|
|Common Name||Big Bluestem|
|Scientific name||Andropogon gerardii|
|Bloom Time||Late Summer / Fall|
|Bloom Duration||4 weeks|
|Bloom Size||Spiklets arrayed along the stem raceme|
|Characteristics||Multiple stems at the termination of each stalk|
|Height||~ 6-10’ (~ 2-3 m)|
|Spacing/Spread||2-3’ (60-90 cm)|
|Light Requirements||Full Sun / Partial Shade|
|Soil Types||Clay, Loam, sand|
|Moisture||Moist to dry|
|Maintenance||None. Cut back in Spring after insects have emerged|
|Typical Use||Meadow, prairie, roadside, erosion control|
|Fauna Associations||Caterpillars and other insects feed on foliage|
|Larval Host||Zabulon Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Homomok Skipper, Little Glassywing, Wood Nymph|
|Sowing Depth||0-1/8” (0-3 mm)|
|Stratification||60 days cold stratification. Or direct sow in Autumn/Winter|
|Native Range||USDA Zones 3-10|
Be sure to check out these other articles, I think you would find useful, as well: How to Remove Sod by Hand – Our Easy Method How to Make DIY Tick Tubes Reasons to NOT Build Raised Bed Gardens Our Simple Method to Compost Our Easy Method to Remove Grass By Hand Native Plant Profiles Invasive Plants Find our YOUTUBE CHANNEL HERE: GROWIT BUILDIT YOUTUBE CHANNEL
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