2013 Kansas Wildflower of the Year
About Little Bluestem
Little Bluestem Grass is the Kansas Native Plant Society Wildflower of the Year. Little Bluestem grows in every county in Kansas and was selected by the Kansas State Legislature as the State Grass of Kansas on July 1, 2010. With an endearing name like Little Bluestem it is easy to fall in love with this beautiful native grass.
Little Bluestem is a warm season perennial bunch or clumping grass growing 2 to 3’ tall. New growth starts in April when the soil warms and continues as the greenish-blue leaves mature and slowly change to more blue and eventually to a stunning russet-coppery autumn color. The tiny flowers on Little Bluestem are of a fuzzy white appearance and there may be 100 or more on each bunch of Little Blue. In early autumn the fuzzy white flowers show up well with the reddish coloring of the grass stems. With these colorful stems blowing in the winter winds it is just one more reason to plant some clumps of the Kansas State Grass.
The scientific name for Little Bluestem is Schizachyrium scoparium. Searching for the meaning of the word ‘schizachyrium’ it is suggested it comes from two latin words. ‘Schizein’ meaning to split and ‘achyron’ meaning chaff. One other suggestion is that it was actually split from the genus ‘Andropogon’ of which Little Bluestem was at one time listed and sometimes still listed as Andropogon scoparium. The name ‘scoparium’ is from the latin ‘scopa’ or ‘scopario’ meaning broom or broom like and if you cut off a thick clump of Little Bluestem at ground level, tied a string tightly around the clump and inserted a stick for a handle it would make a decent broom.
The following species account comes from Growing Native Wildflowers by Harder and Platt. page 94.1. When it was written in 1994, the preferred scientific name was Andropogon scoparium.
LITTLE BLUESTEM Andropogon scoparium
DERIVATION OF NAMES
“Little” refers to the shorter height of this grass in comparison to big bluestem; “bluestem” refers to the bluish-green color of the stems; “Andropogon” (from Greek) — man’s beard, referring to the hairs on some parts of the flowering structure; “scoparius” (from Latin) — broom, from the resemblance of this tufted plant to a broom.
OTHER COMMON NAMES
Prairie beardgrass, broom beardgrass, broom, bunchgrass, small feathergrass, wiregrass, broom wiregrass, broomsedge (used more properly for another species.)
SCIENTIFIC NAMES (SYNONYMS)
Grass family (Poaceae). Little bluestem can be recognized as a grass by the narrow parallel- veined leaves with a basal sheath enclosing the stem, the two-ranked leaves (leaves coming off the stem in only two directions) and the typical reduced flowers that are wind-pollinated. It is a member of the sorghum tribe Andropogoneae. The beardgrasses, genus Andropogon, are a large group of grasses widely distributed in the warmer parts of the world.
Little bluestem is a common prairie grass that lends an important color element to grasslands, both in summer and winter. It is a medium height bunchgrass that makes a handsome specimen in a native plant garden. It also provides good support for wildflowers in a mixed prairie planting. Foliage grows 7 to 20 inches tall. Flowering stalks reach 2 to 4 feet in height in late summer. The stems and leaf sheaths are flattened and hairless at the base and the narrow leaf blades are more or less folded down the middle — distinct differences from big bluestem. Leaves and stems vary from green to bluish-green in different genetic strains. Delicate feathery flowering stalks appear in August when short flowering branches grow from the nodes and extend out of the tops of the sheaths of each of the upper leaves. Little bluestem plants become attractive in the fall as these seeding stalks become fluffy and the foliage turns a rich pinkish-brown, a more intense color than most of the other prairie grasses. This color persists, contributing warm color and texture to subdued winter landscapes. Flowering or seeding stalks make attractive additions to both flower bouquets and dried plant arrangements.
GROWING CHARACTERISTICS AND MANAGEMENT
Little bluestem is a perennial, warm season grass that initiates growth in late April and achieves maximum growth in summer. Although it may form a loose sod under moist conditions, it more typically grows as a bunchgrass with more than 100 stems in a dense clump 4 inches or more in diameter. As a plant ages, the bunch deteriorates in the middle but continues to tiller and send up shoots around the outside. The fibrous finely branched roots extend to a depth of 5 to 6 feet (1.5- 1.8 meters) with a lateral spread of 1 1/2 feet or more in the upper foot of soil. Weaver (1968) reported a rapid turnover of roots with only 10% of secondary roots marked in an experiment still surviving after three growing seasons. After maturing seed in fall, the plant remains dormant until the following spring. Little bluestem is tolerant of dry conditions but root and leaf growth in this species stop sooner than in short grasses like blue grams under drying soil conditions (Redmann and Reekie 1982). In a prolonged drought little bluestem may die out sooner than the deeper-rooted big bluestem (Weaver 1954). In different studies, fire has been reported to stimulate, have no effect on, or inhibit growth and/or flowering of little bluestem. The effect probably depends upon the weather, soil conditions and timing and completeness of burning. Owensby and Smith (1973) stated that, because of the dead material in the center of little bluestem clumps, fire may bum into the crown and kill some plants. Little bluestem volunteers from seed but it is not difficult to control and it is not an aggressive spreader vegetatively. Plants started from seed in the spring may flower the same year under favorable conditions.
The Comanches treated syphilitic sores with the ashes of little bluestem and the Kiowa- Apaches used a little bluestem bundle as a switch in the sweat lodge to cure aches and pains and drive away evil spirits (Kindscher 1992).
RELATIONS TO ANIMALS
Little bluestem is palatable and nutritious. It is readily grazed by domestic animals when it is young and tender, but it is less preferred than big bluestem, After flower stalks begin to develop it becomes woody and less palatable. Little bluestem is a decreaser under heavy grazing. It is greatly weakened and killed when it is kept too short, especially when it is grazed heavily early in the growing season. Stems, leaves and roots of little bluestem were eaten by small rodents in captivity (Menhusen 1963). Little bluestem is not preferred by grasshoppers in the prairie (Risser, et. al. 1981), but it is an important food for the caterpillars of the prairie or ottoe skipper (Hesperia ottoe), swarthy skipper (Nastra lherminier), cobweb skipper (H. metea), as well as a number of other skippers (Scott 1986).
SEEDS AND FRUIT
Seed matures in the fall and can be collected in late September and October. The seed of a number of selected strains and of native grass is also harvested and sold commercially. The small seed grains inside an awned spikelet are mixed with much hairy chaff.
Smith and Smith (1980) recommend dry stratification to improve germination. Baskin and Baskin (1988) reported that, when freshly matured seed was planted, peak germination occurred during the following spring.
Fresh seed can be sown after frost in fall for germination in the spring or seed that has been dry stratified over the winter can be planted in spring. The seed can be sown 1/4 inch deep in a firm seedbed outside or seedlings can be started indoors and then transplanted as outdoor specimen plants. Germination is often low but the seedlings are vigorous. If conditions are favorable, the seedlings will begin to tiller very soon and by the end of the summer will send up a few flowering stalks. Under less favorable conditions, the vegetative growth may be limited for a year or two as the plant establishes its root system. Weaver (1968) reported that the roots of seedlings grew to a depth of 2 feet or more by the end of the first year. Mycorrhizal associations were found to increase the absorption of phosphorus by little bluestem in Illinois (Anderson and Liberta 1992). A single fine leaf blade emerges at germination and additional leaves typically appear within the next 14 days.
Clumps increase in size by producing tillers and short rhizomes. Mature clumps can be divided in spring or in fall although old clumps are more difficult to divide (Smith and Smith 1980).
Little bluestem is found throughout Kansas. It is a very widely distributed grass, its natural range including all of the contiguous U.S. except Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. However McMillan (1959) found that little bluestem from different parts of its range had different flowering times adapted to the climate of the region. Therefore when planting little bluestem it is important to obtain strains that are adapted to local conditions.
Little bluestem is the dominant grass of the uplands and drier soils in the prairie. In the eastern prairie it may form 70% or more of the plant cover on the uplands and slopes but is replaced by big bluestem in the lowland moist soils (Weaver and Fitzpatrick 1934). Further west it shares dominance with short grasses and other midgrasses. It grows on sands as well as loamy soils. It requires full sunlight, growing only in open grasslands or very open woodlands.