By Emmy Ulmschneider and Debbie Roland, Master Gardeners
Across the Great Plains, including Texas, there are a gradient of physical conditions as going from west to east as you cross the shortgrass prairie through the mixed grass prairie to the tall grass prairie. And the grasses and forbs change in response to increasingly wetter conditions. In our irrigated urban prairie garden, we can take advantage of all these grasses to create the prairie of our dreams.
Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, is a foundation prairie grass from short to tall grass prairies, ranging from Mexico to Canada. It forms 2-3 feet tall distinct clumps, making it a tall bunchgrass on a short grass prairie or a short bunchgrass on a tall grass prairie! With more rain, it can reach 5-7 feet tall. Growing naturally across a wide area, it can tolerate a range of different conditions from part shade to full sun, and different soil types from sand to limestone to clay. But it will not tolerate wet soil. Its genus name comes from the Latin schizein meaning to split and achyron meaning chaff or bran and its species name, comes from scoparius meaning broomlike.
Little Bluestem is one of my all-round favorite plants because of its size, year-round beauty, and demeanor. It has an upright growth habit, a small compact stature, and looks great alone or with other prairie plants. And you can track the seasons by its year-round color! In spring, look for the bluish color of the stem bases which give it its common name. As the feathery textured foliage matures and grows, it keeps this soft-blue green color through summer. In late summer to early fall, the seedheads elongate and mature into shimmering white tufts. By late October, the cotton tufted seedheads contrast beautifully with the rich, coppery colored foliage.
To take advantage of the visual dynamics, it is best used as an accent plant or in groupings or drifts. Used in an informal garden or urban prairie, it combines well with other prairie grasses like Sideoats Grama (Blog Article 1-24-2021) providing a green matrix that contrasts with colorful prairie forbs such as coneflowers, Purple Poppy Mallow or Lance-leafed Coreopsis. There are several ways to incorporate Little Bluestem into your garden. You can find it as a transplant from a nursery, as seed or in a prairie mix from a native Texas seed company.
Little Bluestem provides wildlife value in a prairie as well as your garden. Birds and small mammals relish its seeds, cover and nesting material. It also attracts butterflies and is the larval host for several species. If you are planting it for its habitat value, look for native varieties instead of a cultivar (Blog Article 5/10/2022).
So, let this versatile grass with year-round interest, once the backbone of our historic prairies, become the foundation of your prairie.
If you have questions, call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700.
Additional information, and our blog for access to past articles, is available at westtexasgardening.org. Click on “Resources”.