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Schizachyrium

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Quick Look

We grow one species of Schizachyrium, the North American native Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly known as Little Bluestem. The foliage of this natural beauty adds a kaleidoscope of pastel colors in summer and coppery tones in fall.

Schizachyrium is tough and adaptable, tolerant of a range of moisture conditions from average to nearly arid. It is able to grow on both acidic and alkaline soils. They establish quickly on disturbed soils—perfect for banks, slopes, and restorations. They also shine in meadows, prairies, and mixed plantings. Little Bluestem also provides food and shelter for wildlife, including birds and butterflies.

Little Bluestem requires nearly full sun for upright growth and looks best when cut back in early spring, allowing new leaf blades to fill in. Shade, excess fertility, and too much moisture will all contribute to lax, floppy growth. It is quite hardy, extending from Zones 3-9.

<i>Schizachyrium scoparium</i> 'The Blues'
Schizachyrium scoparium 'The Blues'

Digging Deeper

These grasses are most commonly called Little Bluestem, but can go by “bunch grass,” “beard grass,” or “creeping bluestem.” According to the USDA, Little Bluestem is one of the most widely distributed native grasses in North America. It will grow in a variety of soils, thriving in those that are well-drained, medium to dry, and infertile.

With high drought tolerance, Little Bluestem’s range extends across North America and into a large portion of Canada. It is found in all states except Oregon, Nevada, and Alaska. It flourishes in the tallgrass prairies, and has been named the official state grass of both Kansas and Nebraska.

A myriad of blue-, green- and purple-colored foliage creates kaleidoscopes throughout spring and summer, and fall brings reds, coppers, and orange hues. It’s especially lovely in meadow, prairie, and mixed plantings. It gives food and shelter to wildlife and attracts birds and pollinators. According to the USDA, it’s one of the best grasses for nesting and roosting habitat.

Little Bluestem’s root system is deep and fibrous, potentially 5 feet, with some roots developing horizontally. These extensive roots help native grasses withstand periods of drought. Wind-based seeding is typically no more than five or six feet from the plant; animals may transport seeds farther. Seeds mature in early fall.

Little Bluestem has no known pests and is deer-resistant. Quick establishment on disturbed soils makes it perfect for banks and slopes, restoration projects, and urban trail landscapes.

What’s in a Name

Schizachyrium scoparium was previously classified as Andropogon scoparius and is sometimes still listed as such. Grasses in Schizachyrium were once considered part of Andropogon. They are closely related genera. Their subtle differences sparked debates within the botanical community starting over 200 years ago.

The publication Flora Boreali-Americana (1803, Flora of North America by Andreas Michaux) referred to Little Bluestem as Andropogon scoparius. In 1829, German botanist Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck created a new genus, Schizachyrium, and 34 years later John K. Small published the name Schizachyrium scoparium in his Flora of the Southeastern United States. Today, Andropogon and Schizachyrium are considered distinct enough to warrant separate genera. So although some still refer to Schizchyrium scoparium as Andropogon scoparium, the former is accepted as the proper classification for now.

The name Schizachyrium shares the same root as the psychiatric term schizophrenia, skhizein, Greek for “to split” or “to cleave.” Schizachyrium resides in the Poaceae family.

<i>Schizachyrium scoparium</i> 'Carousel'
Schizachyrium scoparium 'Carousel'

Little Bluestem Then and Now

When Little Bluestem blanketed the prairies, various Native American groups used it for insulation in moccasins to keep warm. Bundles of Little Bluestem stalks lashed together formed switches to use in the sweat lodge.

Little Bluestem remains an important food source for a number of species of caterpillars, butterflies, birds, and small mammals. From cattle and bison to deer and elk, Schizachyrium is a top choice for grazers, and is often used for hay. In addition, Little Bluestem is well-suited to erosion control and re-vegetation projects, another benefit of its adaptability. It works well for thin, upland range sites.

The Schizachyrium species most common in cultivation is S. scoparium. Its natural habitats include dry, sterile or acid soils, prairies, and abandoned fields. U.S. species generally not found in cultivation occur in varied habitats, such as coastal beaches and sand dunes (S. maritimum, Gulf Bluestem), and in elevations of 5000 feet or higher (S. cirratum, Texas Bluestem).

Many wonderful cultivars of S. scoparium have been introduced into the nursery world. Each provides a specific benefit, from short and compact structure to super-blazing, orange-red fall color. All of them remain true to Little Bluestem’s legacy of drought tolerance, low maintenance, and natural beauty.

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