This clump of little bluestem grows as part of a native plant exhibit at Kentucky's Big Bone State Park.
Little bluestem is a medium-size bunchgrass named for the lavender-blue tinge on the flattened bases of its stems. It can be as short as 3-5 in (7.6-12.7 cm) on poor dry soil or as tall as 3 ft (0.9 m) on a rich moist tallgrass prairie site, but typically grows to about 20 in (50.8 cm) in height. Some of the fine roots grow laterally, but most of them plunge straight down to depths of 4-5 ft (1.2-1.5 m). On relatively wet sites, little bluestem can form a loose sod of little tufts linked by short rhizomes, but it more commonly grows in 4-10 in (10.2-25.4 cm) clumps 5-10 in (12.7-25.4 cm) apart. There may be 100-300 fine stems emerging from each clump. The solid stems are pinkish with lavender-blue tinted nodes. The fine, flat, blue-green leaves are 1/8-1/4 in (0.4-0.6 cm) wide and 8-14 in (20.3-35.6 cm) long. Each leaf is folded into a V shape where it emerges from the sheath. In the fall, the foliage turns rusty bronze with purplish tones. The flowers are distributed in alternate pairs along zigzag branchlets 1-2 in (2.5-5.1 cm) long. There are several on each stem, which makes the inflorescences appear to be scattered through the top half of the foliage. The little seed spikes mature in the fall. They are fringed with silky silvery-white hairs that make the seedheads look light and fluffy. Viewed in a mass, the effect somewhat resembles that of an old man's beard.
Many botanical varieties of little bluestem have been identified but they intergrade so commonly that they are often difficult to distinguish. Horticultural cultivars include 'Aldous' - a very productive, leafy, medium-size, late-maturing variety from Kansas that is rust-resistant and performs well in northern latitudes; 'Blaze' - a tall, late-maturing Nebraska selection with intense fall color; 'Camper' - a drought-tolerant midwestern forage variety with grayish-green foliage; and 'Cimmaron' - a very drought-tolerant heavy-producing Oklahoma variety. Little bluestem does not have pubescence on the sheaths or lower parts of the leaves as does big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) does. To distinguish it from the common grass, broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), look at the base of the stems: little bluestem shoots are lavender-tinged; broomsedge shoots are yellowish. At maturity, little bluestem is a rusty color with purplish tints; broomsedge is gold.
Little bluestem is native to the region east of the Rocky Mountains from Alberta to Maine and south to Arizona and Florida. Little bluestem is a characteristic climax grassland species on dry prairie and savanna sites. It is commonly found on ridges, hilltops, dry hillsides, and droughty uplands, as well as in shallow ravines and prairie fens. It dominates the groundcover of Arizona oak woodland communities and Montana juniper-bluebunch wheatgrass communities and is an important component of midwestern tallgrass prairies and many types of southeastern pinelands and oak savannas. It readily invades disturbed trail edges and road cuts and often plays a role in successional communities on sand blowouts and old fields.
Little bluestem does best on sandy clay-loam soils with a pH in the range of 5.5-6.0 In the southeastern U.S., it prefers soils derived from limestone. It will also grow on sand or clays, but does not do well on shallow soils. This species gets along fine without fertilizer, but older plants appreciate a little extra nutrition. Nitrogen should not be applied to young stands, but moderate supplementation of phosphorus and potassium may enhance root establishment. Little bluestem will benefit from a prescribed burn every 1-3 years. If prescribed burning is not feasible, little bluestem should be mowed annually in midsummer. Do not cut it lower than 8 in (20.3 cm).
Light:This is a grass that will tolerate partial shade. Moisture: Little bluestem is indicative of dry habitats. It grows abundantly in regions that receive 10-40 in (25.4-101.6 cm) of precipitation per year and does very well on 20 in (50.8 cm). Little bluestem dies back during extended droughts, however, and only flowers well during years with ample rainfall, especially where it has intense competition from other grasses. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 9. Little bluestem grows fastest at temperatures around 68-90ºF (20-32ºC). It survives cold winters in better shape if mowed or grazed no shorter than 3-5 in (7.6-12.7 cm) in the fall. Propagation: Seed production and germination rates are often low in the wild, with good seed crops coming only every 3-5 years or so. Little bluestem is nevertheless easy to grow from seed in the garden. Set the seeds 1/4-1/2 in (0.6-1.3 cm) deep in a firm seedbed. Or, broadcast them into the stubble of a previous crop or onto a prepared soil surface, then roll lightly to firm the soil. To avoid planting too thickly, the seed can be mixed with a carrier such as 0-13-13 fertilizer granules. The ideal temperature range for germination is 68-86ºF (20-30ºC). If the seeds have been prechilled, they should start sprouting in about a month at these temperatures. The preferred outdoor planting time is mid-spring, but little bluestem can be sown outdoors in the winter for spring germination or started indoors anytime to produce transplants. If seeds are to be sown mechanically, a chaffy seed planter will be needed to manage the fluffy seeds. A rate of 6-8 lbs of live seed per acre is recommended for planting intended to enhance wildlife habitat. More seed should be used for forage plantings. Clumps may also be divided to produce new plants.
Little bluestem is grown in wildflower meadows and rock gardens, along roadsides, and in various other naturalistic landscape situations. This species is also a useful rangeland grass; it is regarded as good forage for horses and cattle and fair pasture for sheep. It is highly palatable and fairly nutritious during its early growth phases, but protein and phosphorous content drop as the season progresses and animals lose interest in the plants after they begin to flower. The hay is of good quality, but only if cut early. Little bluestem is also said to have been used in a folk remedy for syphilis.
Little bluestem is a drought-tolerant North American native grass that adds color to meadow, prairie, and woodland-edge plantings. The rusty-bronze fall color contrasts beautifully with blue-green or deep forest green broad-leaved foliage. Little bluestem also provides food and shelter for wildlife. Since this species readily becomes established along disturbed trail edges, it is highly recommended for use in landscaping greenways and restoring damaged wildland recreation areas.