Plant Profile: Little Bluestem

Each year, the Perennial Plant Association chooses a “plant of the year.” It’s a great way to highlight plants that consistently grow well in gardens all over North America. (Amsonia is one of our favorites from the past.) This year’s plant of year is a beautiful native grass,  little bluestem. This native of the prairie and sandy regions is also a larval host plant for nine species of skipper butterflies.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is listed as hardy to USDA Zone 4, so it can grow well in most of the southern two-thirds of Minnesota. However, several cultivars are listed as zone 3 hardy, so even those in northern Minnesota may want to give it a try.

little bluestem in fallIt grows best in full sun and does not require fertilizer in most soils. It actually prefers a lean, sandy soil and can tolerate dry conditions, drought, even gravel. It is a warm season grass, emerging later in the spring. The stems of the plant are clustered at ground level and appear almost blue in color when they first emerge. Later in the season, the stalks turn a pinkish-orange color with creamy seed heads floating above the plant. Stems are very sturdy, so you can leave them up all winter, providing an exclamation point in the snow-covered garden and a place for beneficial insects to overwinter.

In the garden, little bluestem grows about 3 feet tall and provides a vertical backdrop to all kinds of native flowers. Mine is planted near rudbeckia, asters and penstemon for season-long interest.

Cultivars of Note

The species little bluestem is a beautiful plant, but plant breeders have introduced several cultivars that grow well in specific regions of North America. Here are three that would work well in any northern garden.

little bluestem in spring

Blue Heaven little bluestem is a tidy grass that blends well with many perennials.

Blue Heaven® – This cultivar has been around for several years and was developed by Mary Meyer of the University of Minnesota. (She’s currently chair of the MSHS board of directors.) This little bluestem is a bit taller than the species and its foliage has purple highlights through out. It’s a beauty!

Jazz’ — This cultivar is hardy to zone 3, so folks in northern Minnesota can give it a try. It’s shorter than most cultivars and has purple undertones similar to Blue Heaven. It was developed at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

‘Standing Ovation’ — This plant was chosen for its height and more upright habit. It grows nearly 4 feet tall and has reddish tones in the foliage in fall.

Whether your choose the species plant or a cultivar, little bluestem is an adaptable, pollinator-friendly choice for any northern garden.

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