Little Bluestem Facts, Information, Growing

Little Bluestem is a perennial grass plant that is Native to North America that reaches a height of 3′ (1 m).  It is considered a short-medium prairie grass, and is one of the most common grasses found throughout the wild.  Additionally, it is an excellent grass to grow for attracting wildlife, as numerous beneficial insects feed on the foliage.  Furthermore, it attracts birds to your yard as they feed on the seed.  Please note, it can become invasive in a well-manicured garden, as the seeds freely blow around.  To avoid this just remove the seed head before the first frost.Little Bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium

 Little Bluestem Facts

  • Little Bluestem gets its common name from the blue/green color of the grass
  • It is hardy for USDA garden zones 3-9.  Check your USDA garden zone here.
  • Can grow in almost any soil as long as it drains well.  So, no rain gardens!
  • Over a dozen beneficial insects feed on Little Bluestem
  • The cotton/fluffy seed is eaten by songbirds in the winter
  • Little Bluestem is present throughout all southern Canadian Provinces, and all 48 Continental United States
  • The Scientific Name of Little Bluestem is Schizachyrium scoparium

Physical Description

This is a perennial grass that is clump forming and generally erect if planted out in the open.  The color will be blueish-green throughout the Spring and Summer, changing to a golden brown in Autumn/Winter.

Stalk / Stem

A dense clump of blades/stalks with leaves will form for the first 1-2′ as measured from the ground up.  Above this a less dense series of stalks will grow an additional 1′, that don’t have many leaves.

Leaves

Narrow leaves that are alternate along the stalk will grow about 8-10″ (20-25 cm) long by 1/4″ wide (6 mm).

Flower

The upper portion of the stalk will have racemes approximately 2″ long.  These will turn into spiklets that form seed heads.

Root

Little bluestem has a deep fibrous root system that can reach depths of 3′-5′ (1-1.6 m).  To achieve the really deep roots though it should be planted in a diverse landscape, and not just a mono-culture.

Little Bluestem Growing Conditions

Little Bluestem can grow in almost any soil type that drains.  Fertility doesn’t seem to matter, as it can grow in hard clay, black loam, or even somewhat sandy soil.  You don’t need to fertilize this plant to have it grow well.  It will grow best and reach its largest size in full sun.  Due to its deep and large root system, it will be very drought tolerant and an excellent choice for dry areas.  The only area it can’t grow is very high elevations above 5000-6000 feet, and along coastal beaches.

Little Bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium

This grass plant is great for stabilizing banks and preventing erosion.  It has a tendency to self-seed quite vigorously, which will help fill in gaps, but also make it somewhat invasive in smaller gardens.  The foliage is attractive and interesting throughout the Spring/Summer, but also in the Fall/Winter seasons.

How tall does Little Bluestem get?

In optimum conditions, Little Bluestem should reach a height of 3′ (1 m).

How to maintain and care for Little Bluestem

This plant doesn’t really require much care.  Every few years the plant should be divided.  If you don’t divide Little Bluestem, the center portion of the grass clump will die and not produce any foliage.  Once you divide it up, it will return to growing fully.  Lean how to divide your perennials HERE.

How to Establish Little Bluestem

Growing Little Bluestem from seed is incredibly easy.  This seed needs no stratification, so it can be planted anytime as long as you keep the soil moist.  I have germinated dozens of LIttle Bluestem grass plants over the years using the following process.  For starting Little Bluestem in pots, I use the following process;

How to Grow Little Bluestem from seed in Pots

  1. In early Spring, fill some 4″ starter pots with moist potting soil, up to about 1/2″ below the rim (12 mm), and pack it firm.
  2. Sprinkle about 5 Little Bluestem seeds on top
  3. Sprinkle a handful of moist potting soil on top of the Little Bluestem seed
  4. Set out in a location that receives good sun
  5. Thin seedlings so that you only have 1-2 per pot once the seedlings reach about 1-2″ height (25-50 mm)
  6. Transplant seedlings out to their final location once they are 3-4″ tall
Little Bluestem Seedling
Little Bluestem Seedling

For Direct Sowing Little Bluestem in the ground

For direct sowing in a disturbed area, the process is similar.  Just rake the top 1/4″ (6 mm) of soil loose with a metal rake, and sprinkle the seed.  After this, walk over the area to press the seed into the raked up soil.  Then, just run a sprinkler for 20-30 minutes over the area.  Finally, walk over the area to ensure the seed maintains good contact with the ground.

If done in early Spring, the ground will generally be moist enough where more watering isn’t necessary.  But you can water it at night for 20-30 minutes with a regular oscillating sprinkler to ensure plenty of moisture.  If you are trying to do this in the hot temperatures of Summer, then you should apply a layer of straw to act as mulch for maintaining the moisture.

Garden Uses

Little Bluestem is an excellent choice for meadows, slopes, wildflower gardens, and Micro-prairies.  Since it is generally erect it can provide support for other nearby perennials and help keep them upright.  I use this and it’s cousin, Big Bluestem for providing this mutual support.  But the changing colors of Little Bluestem make it an interesting plant to look at year round.  I also love the wildlife it helps support by providing food to the little Skipper Butterflies as well as songbirds.  It is kind of like having a natural bird feeder in your yard!

Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem in our backyard Micro-Prairie

I have germinated dozens of these plants for use along the border of our backyard woods.  I also use it inside of our backyard micro-prairie.  Building micro-prairies using native plants are a great way to support native pollinators/bees and bring the wildlife to your backyard.  Click on the link below to see our guide on making your own ‘pocket prairie’ or backyard wildflower garden:

How To Make a Micro-Prairie

Is Little Bluestem Invasive?

Little Bluestem can become invasive in a well manicured, mulched flower bed.  It will distribute seed throughout the area, and this seed will germinate.  To prevent this, you need to clip off the spikelets before the seed heads turn white and feathery.

Companion Plants for Little Bluestem

If you are working to establish these plants on disturbed sites for erosion control, it is best to plant more species.  Studies have shown that in poor soils the biomass of Little Bluestem is increased with competition with other native grasses and plants.  Buffalo grass particularity helped the biomass of both itself and Little Bluestem according to this study of an infertile site.   So, mix up the grasses!

But a few plants that benefit from having some erect grasses nearby to provide support include False Sunflower, Echinacea Purpurea, Aromatic and New England Aster, and even Giant Sunflower.

Fauna

Little Bluestem is a very important plant for pollinators in that it is a larval host to over a dozen of insects.  This includes skipper butterflies and grasshoppers.  Caterpillars of the following Skipper butterflies all feed on Little Bluestem Foliage;

Additionally, various small songbirds eat the seed of Little Bluestem during the Fall/Winter.  This bunch grass also provides cover for small wildlife.  It is truly an important plant for the ecosystem, providing food and cover for multiple species of organisms.

Pests and diseases

None.  The caterpillars of all the Skippers won’t defoliate the plant, so it should still look good even though it is being munched on.

Little Bluestem Reference Guide

Common NameLittle Bluestem, Beardgrass
Scientific nameSchizachyrium scoparium
Bloom TimeN/A
Bloom DurationN/A
ColorBlue / green in Spring Summer, Bronze/Brown in Winter
Bloom SizeN/A
CharacteristicsClump forming grass
Height3’ (1 m)
Spacing/Spread2-3’ (0.60 – 1 m)
Light RequirementsFull sun, Partial Sun
Soil TypesClay, Loam, Sandy
MoistureAnything that drains well
MaintenanceCut down in Spring after insects emerge
Typical UseBackyard Micro-prairie, Wildflower garden, Erosion Control, Naturalizing. Border garden
Fauna AssociationsBirds eat seeds, multiple Skipper moth/butterflies, walking sticks
Larval HostHenry’s Elfin butterfly, Grape leaffolder moth
Sowing DepthSurface-1/16”
StratificationNone
Native RangeUSDA Zones 3-9
NotesGrowitbuildit.com

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