Description & Overview

Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly known as Little Bluestem, is a tough and adaptable warm-season grass that is tolerable of a wide range of soil textures and moisture conditions. It has high ecological value and low maintenance needs. It is one of the dominant species that make up our tall and short grass prairies. It has a massive native range stretching all the way from Canada to Mexico, and from the East coast to the West coast.

Core Characteristics

Category: Grasses

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 4

Mature Height: 24-36 inches

Mature Spread: 12-18 inches

Growth Rate: Perennial

Growth Form: Clump forming

Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade

Site Requirements: Tolerable to a wide range of soil conditions

Flower: Insignificant

Bloom Period: June - November

Foliage: Blue-green

Fall Color: Orange-red

Urban Approved: Yes

Fruit Notes: Fluffy, silver seed stalks mature in late September to early October

Suggested Uses

Little Bluestem is highly adaptable and an easy to care for plant. It has a deep root system which makes it particularly useful when planted on riverbanks or slopes for erosion control. Thanks to those deep roots, and its high tolerance for moisture, it would also make a fine addition to any rain garden. Little Bluestem has been used extensively in prairie restoration projects primarily for its adaption to a diversity of sites, drought tolerance, growth habit, and wildlife appeal. Its bluish-green foliage shifts into a lovely red, copper, and orange hue also giving it ornamental value for landscape settings.

Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly known as Little Bluestem, is a tough and adaptable warm-season grass that is tolerable of a wide range of soil textu…
Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly known as Little Bluestem, is a tough and adaptable warm-season grass that is tolerable of a wide range of soil textu…

Wildlife Value

According to the USDA, Little Bluestem is one of the best grasses for a nesting or roosting site. The clump-forming growth habit and the many fine leaves at its base make it ideal for small mammals or ground-nesting birds. The seeds are consumed by many small mammals and birds such as finch, sparrow, ground squirrel, muskrat, and meadowlark. The seeds are especially high value for birds that spend the winter on grasslands, such as Greater Prairie Chickens, Bobwhite Quail, pheasants, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Juncos, finches, and chipping/field/tree sparrows.

The wildlife value doesn’t stop there! It’s also valuable for insects – providing nesting structure for bees, pollen for pollinators, and serving as a host plant for the Indian Skipper (Hesperia sassacus), Cobweb Skipper (Hesperia metea), Arogos Skipper (Atrytone arogos), Crossline Skipper (Polites origenes), Leonard’s Skipper (Hesperia leonardus), Ottoe Skipper (Hesperia ottoe), Dusted Skipper (Atrytonopsis hianna), Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan), and Common Wood Nymph (Cercyonis pegala). Dusky Skipper larvae overwinter in tube tents above the base of the clumps.

Little Bluestem is valuable to many grasshoppers including Kiowa Grasshopper (Trachyrhachys kiowa), Large-headed Grasshopper (Phoetaliotes nebrascensis), Slant-faced Pasture Grasshopper (Orphulella speciosa), Two-striped Mermiria (Mermiria bivittata), Striped Sand Grasshopper (Melanoplus foedus), Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum), Narrow-winged Sand Grasshopper (Melanoplus angustipennis), Velvet-striped Grasshopper (Eritettix simplex), Carolina Grasshopper (Dissosteira carolina), Green-striped Grasshopper (Chortophaga viridifasciata), Meadow Grasshopper (Chorthippus curtipennis), and Speckled-winged Grasshopper (Arphia conspersa).

Deer, cattle, and livestock will browse the foliage, as will leafhoppers, leaf-mining beetles, Prairie Walkingsticks (Diapheromera velii), thrips, and spittlebugs.

Maintenance Tips

Caring for Little Bluestem is extremely easy. It performs best in average, dry to medium moisture, well-drained soil in full sun. However, it does tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and textures like clay, sand, or infertility. It has a high drought resistance once established.

We recommend cutting back to the ground in early spring to promote new and attractive growth.

If planting in a landscape setting, be sure not to go heavy on the mulch. This plant suffers when there’s too much mulch near the crown.

Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly known as Little Bluestem, is a tough and adaptable warm-season grass that is tolerable of a wide range of soil textu…
Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly known as Little Bluestem, is a tough and adaptable warm-season grass that is tolerable of a wide range of soil textu…

Pests/Problems

Little Bluestem has few pests or disease problems. You may encounter foliar diseases such as rust or leaf spot, but these problems are hardly worth mentioning and are cosmetic and not detrimental.

This grass is unlikely to be browsed by deer.

Leaf Lore

The genus name Schizachyrium comes from the Latin word ‘schizein’ meaning “to split” or “to cleave” and ‘achyron’ meaning “chaff.” The specific epithet scoparium means “broom like.”

Schizachyrium scoparium was previously classified as Andropogon scoparius and can occasionally be found listed as such. Grasses in the Schizachyrium genus were once considered part of Andropogon, the two genera are closely related. Their subtle difference sparked many debates in the botanical community over 200 years ago. Today, Andropogon and Schizachyrium are considered distinct enough to warrant separate genera.

In the 1803 publication of Flora of North America by Andreas Michaux, Little Bluestem was referred as Andropogon scoparius. In 1829, a German botanist by the name of Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees Von Esenbeck created the new genus, Schizachyrium. In 1863, John K. Small published the name Schizachyrium scoparium in his book Flora of the Southeastern United States which was the first official publication of Little Bluestem with the updated genera and species.

Companion Plants

Little Bluestem companion plants will vary depending on how you intend to use it. As this grass can be planted in a variety of different planting locations, the list of compatible companions is extensive. If planting in a prairie or naturalized area, consider pairing with American Pasque Flower, Goldenrod, Sky Blue Aster, Switchgrass, Prairie Blazing Star, Rattlesnake Master, Prairie Dock, Pale Purple Coneflower, or Black-eyed Susan.

If you are using this plant in a rain garden, plant alongside Great Blue Lobelia, Ironweed, White Turtlehead, Shreve’s Iris, Pennsylvania Sedge, Culver’s Root, or Spotted Joe-Pye Weed.

Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly known as Little Bluestem, is a tough and adaptable warm-season grass that is tolerable of a wide range of soil textu…
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Written by Miles Minter