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.
Little Bluestem is highly adaptable and easy to care for. 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.
According to the USDA, it’s one of the best grasses for a nesting or roosting site. The clump-forming growth habit and the many fine leaves at the 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 prairie chickens and the sharp-tailed grouse.
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 dusky skipper caterpillar.
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.
Little bluestem has few pests or disease problems to worry about. You may encounter foliar diseases such as rust or leaf spot, but these problems are hardly worth mentioning.
This grass is unlikely to be browsed by deer.
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.
Little Bluestem companion plants will vary depending on what you are using this grass for. Because 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 Goldenrod, Aster, Switchgrass, Blazing Star, Rattlesnake Master, Prairie Dock, Coneflower, or Black-eyed Susan.