Big Bluestem – A Big Grass With Big Benefits

Big Bluestem Andropogon gerardii

Big Bluestem is a tall perennial ornamental grass that is native to North America.   A valuable plant for wildlife, numerous grasshoppers feed on the blades and several caterpillars are hosted by it. Scientifically known as Andropogon gerardii, it grows up to 10′ (3.3 m) in optimum conditions and will show several color shades throughout the season.

Starting at blueish green in Spring, it will grow relatively fast finally settling on a shade of brown to tan in the Fall.  So, it is a warm-season clump forming grass.  Also, it is an important grass for wildlife, there are many insects that will feed on the foliage including skippers and over a dozen grasshoppers.  Additionally, various small birds also consume the seed as well.

This plant is absolutely gorgeous when swaying in the breeze.  It almost seems to be dancing when moving back and forth on a windy Autumn day.  In my experience I’ve found that during heavy rains this plant may be drooping heavily the next morning, only to recover a day later and once again stand tall. 

This plant is really an interesting ornamental grass to have a specimen, or dispersed in a backyard prairie or wildflower garden. I’ve been growing it since 2018 and enjoy the interest it brings as well as the wildlife it supports.

 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

Reference table

Common NameBig Bluestem
Scientific nameAndropogon gerardii
Bloom TimeLate Summer / Fall
Bloom Duration4 weeks
Bloom SizeSpiklets arrayed along the stem raceme
CharacteristicsMultiple stems at the termination of each stalk
Height~ 6-10’ (~ 2-3 m)
Spacing/Spread2-3’ (60-90 cm)
Light RequirementsFull Sun / Partial sun
Soil TypesClay, Loam, sand
MoistureMoist to dry
MaintenanceNone.  Cut back in Spring after insects have emerged
Typical UseMeadow, prairie, roadside, erosion control
Fauna AssociationsCaterpillars and other insects feed on foliage
Larval HostZabulon Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Homomok Skipper, Little Glassywing, Wood Nymph
Sowing Depth0-1/8” (0-3 mm)
Stratification60 days cold stratification.  Or direct sow in Autumn/Winter
Native Range / Growing zonesNorth America / USDA Zones 3-10

Big Bluestem Identification and Physical Description

Big Bluestem in Mid-Summer, surrounded by Swamp Milkweed.

This 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 / Stem

Very erect and large, the stalks of Big Bluestem all emanate form a central clump.


Leaves 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.


The 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.


Roots 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 Bluestem

Big 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. 

How to care for Big Bluestem

If 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.


In 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.

Big Bluestem emerging in Spring (center)

Growing from seed

Growing 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 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.

Germinating Big Bluestem Seeds in pots or containers

  1. In late winter or very early Spring, fill 4″ (10 cm) pots with moist potting soil to 1/2″ (12 mm) from the top.
  2. Pack the potting soil so that it isn’t loose, but slightly firm.
  3. Sprinkle 5-10 seeds on top, and press them firmly into the soil
  4. 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.
  5. Keep moist until germination.

Also, you can winter sow Big Bluestem.  Just repeat the process above, but set the seed tray outside but covered.  Similar to the instruction in this video.

Below is a picture of a Little Bluestem seedling, however the seedlings are almost indistinguishable from Big Bluestem.

Little Bluestem Seedling

Direct Sowing

You 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.

Purchase Seed

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.)

How to Save and Harvest Big Bluestem Seed

Once 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 Uses

This 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.

Big Bluestem in June, at the base of our Bee Hotel
Big Bluestem flanked by False Sunflower
Big Bluestem micro-prairie Andropogon gerardii
Big Bluestem in August. Where did our Bee Hotel go?

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 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!


This 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

Additionally, Big Bluestem seeds are eaten by birds (particularly smaller songbirds).  Furthermore the grass can provide cover to small mammals and other birds.  This is really a great plant to grow if you want to attract wildlife.

Find more native grasses here

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over 10 years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! You may have seen some of my videos I create on our YouTube channel, GrowitBuildit (more than 10 million views!). You can find my channel here: Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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