Sunday, May 26, 2019

Plant Story--Adaptable Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium

little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium
little bluestem in the prairie
Talk about being ignored! Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, grass family, Poaceae) is one of the most successful plants, certainly grasses, of North America and yet it gets little attention.

Little bluestem grows to be about 3 feet high, making it a midgrass in grassland terminology. It is a bunch grass, meaning it forms clumps which only slowly get larger.
little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium in winter
little bluestem fall colors
Its native range was very large. It is native to virtually all the lower 48 states and across southern Canada (link) and into southeastern Mexico.  It has been planted even more widely.

Historically, little bluestem was one of the five major grasses of the tallgrass prairie, an ecosystem which stretched from Tennessee to Kansas across the central U.S. (see map on Wikipedia link). Tallgrass prairies were dominated by tall grasses, grasses that grew to more than 6' tall. In that environment, little bluestem is inconspicuous, but the more you look for it, the more you find. When ecologists counted and measured grass abundance, it was regularly one of the top five grasses (in an ecosystem that was 90% grass), a major part of the community.

tallgrass prairie
tallgrass prairie. Little bluestem is in there but topped by the tallgrassses
On the Wikipedia map, tallgrass prairie doesn't look particularly large (just whole states in extent). The midgrass prairie to the west of the tallgrass prairie seems bigger. Tallgrasses gave way to midgrasses in the central U.S. because the western lands are drier. So, as the tallgrasses dropped out, little bluestem became an ecosystem dominant. It covered hillsides in the midgrass prairie, turning them a lovely shade of red in the fall.
hillside of little bluestem in western Nebraska
Dry hillside of little bluestem in western Nebraska
Dominant in two major grasslands: an exemplary record.

Farther west on the plains, there isn't a enough rain for little bluestem to dominate, but it is easy to find in moister spots. It is very drought-tolerant with roots that go down more than four feet for water, but it is not a desert grass.

Turning east, in the forests of eastern North America, it can be found on drier sites such as rock outcrops, taking it all the way to the Atlantic coast.

little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium
Little bluestem at the bottom of the photo to the left,
Atlantic Ocean on the horizon in Massachusetts
For livestock, it is good forage in the spring, a bit fibrous in late summer. The clumps of little bluestem's leaves create terrific sites for ground-nesting birds. Several native butterflies, in particular the cobweb skipper (Hesperia metea, Hesperidae), Leonard's skipper (Hesperia leonardus), and the Indian skipper (Hesperia sassacus), feed on little bluestem as caterpillars (link).

The seeds are pretty, covered with fluffy-looking white hairs. The seeds are important food for birds, in both fall and winter, and feed small mammals as well.

little bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium with seeds
seeds on little bluestem
It seeds into other flower beds but I find it easy to transplant or weed out. Because it jumps around under garden conditions, I don't often wonder how this little plant had its seeds transported before settlement. Probably the fuzzy hairs stuck the to animals, particularly the American bison (Bison bison), which has at least five different kinds of hair (on face, legs, beard, guard hairs, underfur) easily picking up little bluestem's seeds. (See seed close ups in the blog Prairie Piece (link).)

American bison in tall grass prairie
American bison.  This one is shedding. Most little
bluestem seeds were found in shed hair.
It grows taller and shorter, the stem blue or not, the foliage more or less red, depending on the conditions. It grew in places with 10 to 60" of annual rainfall and U.S.D.A. plant hardiness zones 3-9.

tall little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium
My 6'3" husband gamely demonstrates
how tall  little bluestem can get.
November, Long Island, New York

Then, landscapers discovered it. After all, it is not too tall, forms nice clumps, and turns a pretty red in fall. You can spot it in all sorts of places in ornamental plantings. Just as in nature it was common but got walked by, the same applies in cityscapes.

Important in native grasslands and now making itself a place in horticulture, little bluestem is a very adaptable grass.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Sources included not referred to above
Eyheralde, P. G. 2015. Bison-mediated seed dispersal in a tall grass prairie reconstruction. Iowa State University Ph.D. online at link
Little bluestem Missouri Plant Finder link
Rosas, C. A., D. M. Engle, J.H. Shaw, and M. W. Palmer. Seed dispersal by Bison bison in a tallgrass prairie. Journal of Vegetation Science. 19: 769-778.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant guide. Little Bluestem. link
USDA Plants data base

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

1 comment:

  1. I love this species and have seen it in so many different places. It's native where I'm at, but the most impressive stands of S. scoparium that I've seen were in New Hampshire, though I've also encountered it in New Mexico and New York.