It really is blue! The beautiful color is more prominent in established plants, but little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, sends up lovely blue-purple flower stalks this time of year. In fall, it turns a golden tan, and the plants glow in the winter sun.
Little bluestem is the backbone of the midwestern prairies, and in the east it’s common in permanently open areas, like the tops of hills or along rock ridges, and in temporary meadows that result from blowdowns or storms. It’s a tough, hardy grass that grows up to 3 feet tall and prefers full sun and dry soil. It thrives in my sandy soil.
Little bluestem looks very different at different stages in its life cycle and in different seasons (and grasses are hard to identify at the best of times). It forms clumps that get bigger over time; it does not spread by rhizomes like most lawn grasses. In the spring the plants are low and fountain-shaped, as are immature plants. It can be difficult to establish, mostly because it’s slow growing–perennials tend to shade it out, and it needs full sun. So plant it toward the front of your perennial beds, even among shorter-growing, early blooming perennials–little bluestem doesn’t stake out until late July, so it will not shade or crowd spring or early-summer bloomer. And then you can enjoy the full glory of this beautiful plant in late summer and fall.
Grasses are wind-pollinated, so their flowers don’t attract pollinating insects, but many birds eat their seeds in fall and winter. Grasses are the larval food of many butterflies. In nature, perennials never grow without grasses. The root structures of grasses and perennials are complementary, and they help support each other. If your native perennials flop, it’s because they need more plants around them. Try adding some native grasses.