New backpacks and pre-season football games may signal the onset of autumn for some, but – for me – it is the seed heads of ornamental grasses urged back and forth by gentle breezes that herald a change in the seasons.
There are several types of warm-season ornamental grasses that begin flowering in late summer. Fountain grass (Pennisetum), switch grass (Panicum) and maiden grass (Miscanthus) are the most popular members of the ornamental grass family. One that I think should be planted more often is Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly called little bluestem and sometimes listed botanically as Andropogon scoparius.
Little bluestem is native to much of North America and was one of the principal grasses in the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest. Growing from two to four feet tall and about two feet wide, it is tolerant of a wide variety of growing conditions, except rich or soggy soil and deep shade, which causes stems to flop. Little bluestem grows best in full sun in average to dry soil and is extremely cold hardy.
As it matures, little bluestem’s root system reaches deep into the earth – as far as five feet, resulting in incredible drought tolerance. Plants may self-seed to form colonies, especially on sites with disturbed soil.
Little bluestem waits for the soil to warm before actively growing in spring, when it quickly sends up blades of blue- and purple-tinted green. Purple flowers turn to fluffy silver seed heads toward the end of summer. In fall, the foliage becomes lovely autumnal shades of orange and burgundy.
The only care little bluestem requires to keep it looking its best once it is established is an annual crew cut in spring before new growth begins.
There are no known pests or diseases that bother little bluestem – even deer don’t find it palatable. It does, however, offer food and shelter to a variety of wildlife, birds, butterflies and other pollinators.
Carousel is a compact cultivar – two to three feet tall and wide – with foliage streaked with pink in summer and showier seed heads. Blue Heaven and Prairie Blues are similar in size to their parent but sport bluer foliage.
Plant little bluestem as a vertical accent in perennial gardens, with other natives in meadows or prairies, and in cottage gardens. It is undemanding, offers four seasons of winter and supports wildlife – sounds like a winner to me!
Diana Stoll is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. The “Learning to Grow” column runs weekly during warmer months of the year. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information. Feedback on this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.