Schizachyrium scoparium, Little Bluestem - 7 (4)

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by Catherine Macleod

Pronunciation:Schizachyrium (skits-ah-KEER-ee-um) scoparium (skoh-PAIR-ee-um)

Schizachyrium scoparium or little bluestem once flourished throughout North America feeding bison and other grazing animals. It is a major component of the grassland complex of this continent, especially the tallgrass prairies that once occupied over a million square kilometres (400,000 square miles).

Today, the tallgrass prairie has shrunk to 0.1% of its original size. In this diminished state, little bluestem provides habitat for ground-nesting birds and butterflies. Ranchers take advantage of its high nutritional value, shipping their cattle to fatten on ranges in the Kansas Flint Hills and the Osage Hills of Oklahoma.

Little bluestem grows naturally in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, south through New England to Florida, west to Texas and north to North Dakota. But only pockets of the tallgrass prairie remain, notably on the Walpole Island First Nation near Wallaceburg, Ontario, the Norfolk Sand Plain in Brantford, Ontario, the Living Prairie Museum in Winnipeg, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma, and a few others.

With a surprisingly deep, fibrous root system of 150-250 centimetres (five to eight feet), little bluestem can draw water from deep in the ground and survive droughts as well as periodic fires. It plays a critical role in erosion control. Characterized as a bunch grass, it has many stems arising from one set of fine, fibrous roots.

This clump-forming perennial needs full sun and well-drained soil, and will grow to 100–500 centimetres (two to three feet) tall under ideal conditions. The beautiful branched flower heads (comprised of several three- to five-centimetre, or one- to two-inch, loose spikes) droop sadly in excessively moist and fertile soils.

The blue-green leaves are seven millimetres (1/4 inch) wide and about 60-90 centimetres (20-40 inches) in height. The stem has grooves above each node with a smooth sheath, usually strongly-keeled.

Until recently, Schizachyrium scoparium was mistakenly categorized with the Andropogon family. Little bluestem, however, is shorter and more drought-resistant than its taller cousin Andropogon gerardii or big bluestem. The genus name Schizachyrium translates as split chaff, while scoparium means broom-like, a reference to its stiffly bunched stems. Now rightfully identified, little bluestem enjoys full nomenclatural citizenship in the native grass kingdom.

In my Kincardine, Ontario garden the flowers appear in late summer. From late October to mid-November, little bluestem changes colour dramatically. The flat, hairless leaves of this species turn from bluish-green to reddish-brown at first frost. Its fine foliage and distinctive upright flowers move from various shades of red to deep purple. During the winter, little bluestem flowers are blond fluffy plumes. They stay intact for most of the winter, adding sculptural beauty to the snowy landscape.

Though dependable seed harvest is difficult, some report yields of 90 kilograms or more of seed per hectare (200 pounds per acre) when Schizachyrium scoparium is cultivated in rows. I prefer to divide the clump base in the spring. A three-year-old clump, for example, can yield as many as 30 or more new little plants.

My partner, horticulturist Martin Quinn, calls little bluestem the grass for dry locations. Perfect for prairie restorations, home gardens and meadow plantings, Schizachyrium scoparium creates a stunning presence in mass plantings. It is also an excellent choice for natural transitions from formal garden areas to fields or meadows. Whether gardening with native grasses at home or restoring an existing prairie, we value little bluestem for its resilience and outstanding ornamental beauty.

In these days of climate change, little bluestem is a winner.

Writer Catherine Macleod lives and gardens with grass hybridizer and horticulturist Martin Quinn in Kincardine, Ontario. They co-authored Grass Scapes: Gardening with Hardy Ornamental Grasses, published by Whitecap Books in Canada and Ball Publishing in the U.S. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .