This king of native tall grasses has year-round appeal and is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, including sand, gravel, drought, and nutrient-poor soils. It’s a warm-season, perennial bunchgrass that has an open, erect shape in full sun and blooms gloriously with coarse, reddish spikelets and yellow or red anthers from July to October. Seeds shaped like turkey feet (another common name is turkey-foot grass) follow in autumn, persisting on foliage throughout the winter. Big bluestem develops slowly during cool spring weather before reaching its full height of 6 to 8 feet. The common name refers to its large size and bluish-green leaves, which transition to burgundy or coppery red in the fall. It spreads by seeds and tough rhizomes and, as the dominant grass of the tallgrass prairie, was widely responsible for the formation of the famous prairie sod. It’s commonly used in erosion-control plantings--especially in sandy areas--and in the restoration of native plants in agricultural or pasture areas, serving as forage for cattle, horses, and goats. It provides excellent wildlife habitat for bobwhite quail and other ground-nesting birds, and its rhizomes allow it to recover easily from wildfires. Big bluestem has no known pest or disease issues. To keep the plant tidy, cut or mow in spring, just as new growth begins to appear.
Native habitats include prairies with black soil, clay, sand, or gravel; savannas; roadsides; and fallow fields. This is a good choice for drought-prone gardens, pollinator and winter gardens, screening, naturalizing, mass plantings, restoring prairies, and slopes needing erosion control.
According to Planting in a Post-Wild World, by Claudia West and Thomas Rainer, big bluestem may be used as a structural plant to form the backbone of a plant community composed of four layers: structural plants, seasonal-theme plants, groundcover plants, and filler plants. A structural plant has a distinctive form, is long lived, and should comprise 10-15% of the plant community.
Grows 4-8’ tall and 2-3’ wide.
Prefers full sun and tolerates light shade. Too much shade promotes floppiness.
Prefers moist to slightly dry, well-drained soils, including clay loam. Not picky about soil type. Drought tolerant once established.
Dull-green to purplish-red spikelets with yellow or red anthers bloom in late summer or early fall, lasting about 1-2 weeks. The florets are cross-pollinated by the wind and are replaced by seed heads.
Leaves are about 1” wide, bluish green, linear, and outward arching.
Big bluestem hosts 14 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including the common wood nymph butterfly pictured first, a specialist whose caterpillars feed exclusively on big bluestem. At least 4 species of skippers can feed on only big bluestem and little bluestem plants. These are cobweb, dusted, crossline and swarthy skippers (all 4 are pictured in order). Big bluestem is an important food source for many grasshoppers. The seeds are eaten by bluebirds, sparrows and other songbirds. This grass is known to provide coverage for dozens of songbirds and is favored as a nesting site for ground birds such as wrens.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Various Native American tribes used big bluestem to treat digestive problems and fevers.
Native Americans used the long, jointed stems to make earth lodges, and the young boys made toy arrow shafts from the stems.
The grass can be cut and used for hay.
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