This four-season perennial bunchgrass is often referred to as ‘graceful.’ It starts out slowly in cooler weather, growing more quickly during summer until its fine-textured, blue-green foliage reaches its full height by September. The foliage transitions to a rich copper color that lasts through winter. The height is often 2 to 4 feet but can be as high as 6 feet, depending on ecoregional variation. For this reason, try to get seeds or plants from your particular ecoregion. Little bluestem does best in full or part sun, although its erect form tends to droop in shadier conditions. It flourishes in a wide variety of well-drained soils. Ideally, it should be sited in a sunny, fairly dry, well-drained location; avoid areas that are shady or wet, and choose poor soils rather than rich ones.
Deer tend not to bother this highly adaptable and low-maintenance grass. Its smaller stature makes it a good plant for formal and semi-formal gardens in areas where a clear view is desired. Deep roots make it drought tolerant once established. The grass spreads mostly by seeds, which tend to stay near the parent plant but will sometimes travel 5 or 6 feet.
For such a small plant, this one scores big with local wildlife, providing cover for ground nesting. Bumble bee queens will often nest at the base of these grasses. Showy clusters of fluffy, silvery-white plumes hold seeds that provide winter sustenance for bluebirds and other wildlife. The clumping form of the plant creates natural runways and tunnels for quail, ground-nesting songbirds, and small mammals to maneuver through while being protected from predators by the overhead vegetation.
The plant can be divided in early spring if the clump becomes too large. Cutting back the dried grass every year or two in early spring can encourage new growth. Little bluestem evolved with fire and browsing by large mammals, so don’t be shy about cutting it back.
Native habitats include edges of woods, woodland openings, hillsides and slopes, prairies and plains, meadows, pastures, and savannas. Breathtaking when naturalized in large areas, little bluestem is an attractive addition to gardens, and is most striking when planted two feet apart in group plantings. It may also be used to control erosion on slopes. The dried grass stems and seed heads can be used in cut flower arrangements or in winter wreaths.
Grows 3-6’ tall and 1-2’ wide.
Prefers full sun and tolerates light shade; too much shade can cause drooping or a mat-like growth habit.
Grows in a wide range of well-drained soil types, including clay, thin, rocky, dry, and poor soils. Does not tolerate wetlands.
Blooms August-September with 3”-long, fluffy inflorescences that are blue to silvery gold or white. The flowers are scattered in a single cluster with white, feathery hairs and seeds.
Blue-green leaves have an open, spreading habit and turn bronzed orange in winter.
Little bluestem hosts 13 species of lepidoptera larvae, including the skippers cobweb, dusted, crossline, and swarthy (pictured in that order). Many types of grasshoppers, spittlebugs, leafhoppers, beetles, and other insects eat the vegetation. Bluebirds and other bird species and small mammals eat the seeds in winter.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used little bluestem switches in ceremonial sweat lodges. Dried leaves and stems were rubbed into soft fiber for moccasin lining and insulation.
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