Little Bluestem

Schizachyrium scoparium

Little_Bluestem_seed_head_4-10-18.jpg

Photo of little bluestem mature seed head
Little bluestem is a native perennial bunch grass with flowering stalks 1–4 feet tall. In fall, the leaves turn coppery.
Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org
Family

Poaceae (grasses)

Description

Little bluestem is a native perennial bunch grass with flowering stalks reaching 1–4 feet tall. A warm-season grass, it does most of its growth during the hottest part of summer. Leaves are green, about ¼ inch wide; the bases are typically bluish, hence the name. In fall, the leaves turn coppery. Flowering stems branch toward the tip, rising above the leaves; flower clusters are soft, usually somewhat curved, 1–3 inches long; when mature they are tan or grayish white and fluffy. Flower heads develop August–October.

Little bluestem is a highly variable species that, in the past, has been divided into many varieties, forms, and subspecies. Sometimes the differences are striking from site to site and even within a single population; some plants are bluish gray with a waxy coating while others are green and lack the coating. The amount of hairiness can vary, too, among other traits.

Size

Height: flowering stems 1–4 feet

Little_Bluestem_bunch_grass_4-10-18.jpg

Photo of a clump of little bluestem, bluish green in mid summer
Little Bluestem
A warm-season grass, little bluestem does most of its growth during the hottest part of summer.

Little_bluestem_colony_fall_4-10-18.jpg

Photo of a little bluestem colony with copper-colored foliage in autumn
Little Bluestem Colony, Fall Color
At first frost, little bluestem turns copper-colored, and it contributes greatly to Missouri's fall color along roadsides and in grassy, open places.

Little_bluestem_seed_heads_autumn_4-10-18.jpg

Photo of little bluestem seed heads looking fluffy in autumn
Little Bluestem Seed Heads in Autumn
The flower clusters of little bluestem are soft, usually somewhat curved, and 1–3 inches long; when mature they are tan or grayish white and fluffy.

Little_Bluestem_foliage_4-10-18.jpg

Photo of little bluestem clump showing stems and leaf bases
Little Bluestem Foliage
The stem bases of little bluestem are typically bluish, hence the name.

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Photo of a little bluestem clump, mid summer, with old culms still standing
Little Bluestem Clump
In midsummer, little bluestem's leaves are growing rapidly, while the dried culms (flower stalks) of the previous season are still standing.

Little_Bluestem_flowering_midAugust_4-10-18.jpg

Photo of a little bluestem clump flowering in late summer
Little Bluestem Clump in Flower
New flower heads of little bluestem develop August–October. This plant was flowering in August.

Little_Bluestem_Seed_heads_fall_color_4-10-18.jpg

Photo of mature seed heads of little bluestem showing fall color
Little Bluestem Seed Heads in Autumn
Little bluestem may be grown as an ornamental. It is also considered highly desirable both as fodder for livestock and for production of hay.
Habitat and conservation

Occurs in upland prairies, glades, savannas, and openings of dry upland forests; also in old fields, fallow fields, pastures, roadsides, railroads, and dry, open, disturbed areas.

Distribution in Missouri

Common nearly statewide; absent from parts of the Bootheel lowlands.

Status

Within the large and diverse grass family, little bluestem is included in the same tribe as corn, sorghum, big bluestem, Indian grass, gama grass, and silver grass (Miscanthus — an Asian grass popular in landscaping).

Human connections

This grass species is considered highly desirable both as fodder for livestock and for production of hay. Little bluestem–dominated ranges in Kansas and Oklahoma long ago became important stopping points for cattle to fatten on. The pollen is considered a source of hay fever in areas where this grass grows commonly. At first frost, little bluestem turns copper-colored, and it contributes greatly to fall color along roadsides and in grassy, open places.

Ecosystem connections

Little bluestem is a major component of tallgrass prairie and glade habitats. Just as trees dominate woodland and forest communities, grasses dominate prairies, glades, and savannas. Thus a large variety of native animals and plants rely on little bluestem and associated grasses for their existence.