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Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a medium-sized prairie grass native to North America between southern Canada and central Mexico. Originally, this grass only occurred east of the Rocky Mountains. More recently it has colonized open, disturbed areas in almost every state in the US, and is now one of the most widely distributed of the native grasses in North America. It is recognized as the state grass of both Kansas and Nebraska.
Little bluestem is called “little” because it grows to a mature size of about 4 ft (1.3 m) tall, whereas its relative, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), grows to 8 feet. A warm season grass, little bluestem is dormant in the winter. When it starts its annual growth in late spring its shoots are a blue-purple color. The shoots grow upright and thin green blades, up to 12 inches (30 cm) long, grow off the shoots.
Preferring well-drained, sandy, usually infertile soils, little bluestem most often grows alongside side-oats grama and porcupine grass in upland prairies. Its dense root system can grow 5-8 ft (1.6-2.6 m) deep, accessing water even in drought. However, little bluestem can grow heartily in a diversity of soil types. Wetter, lowland areas formerly occupied by big bluestem and Indian grass now also host little bluestem.
Under dry conditions, the shoots of little bluestem grow in distinct clumps and its leaves turn orange or red. In wet soils it spreads out from short underground rhizomes (runners) in more of a mat-type growth with bright green leaves. Some varieties have blue tinged leaves. In the fall, little bluestem produces large, fluffy, silver-white seedheads. The seeds depend mostly on wind for dispersal, but do not travel farther than about 6 ft (2 m) from their parent.
Little bluestem attracts significant wildlife. Its large, well-defined bunches make good shelter for small mammals. They also provide ideal nesting and roosting conditions for ground nesting birds. Farmlands planted with a border of little bluestem attract populations of ground-nesting meadowlarks, a declining species dependent on prairie ecosystems. Little bluestem produces large numbers of seeds providing high-quality food for a diversity of birds. These include game birds, rosy finches, juncos, and multiple types of sparrows songbirds. Insects also feed on little bluestem, especially eating the inner shoots. This grass hosts the caterpillars of several species of skipper butterfly and the common wood-nymph butterfly, and various beetle species. In turn, these are good food for animal and birds that shelter in bluestem clumps.
Wild ungulates such as bison, deer and elk forage on little bluestem leaves. Cattle and horses too, eat little bluestem, although sheep and goats find it too rough. Farmers cultivate it for hay. Plains Indians had various traditional purposes for little bluestem, including starting fires and using as mattress padding. Some cultures twisted the grass into a switch (like a whip) for to men to hit themselves with during sweathouse ceremonies. This was thought to drive out bad spirits and lessen aches and pains. The Lakota Indians were known to work bluestem shoots and leaves until they were soft and then use them for insulation in moccasins.
Since little bluestem is hardy and adaptable to various growing conditions, it is frequently planted to re-vegetate disturbed and eroded areas. Many popular ornamental varieties of little bluestem are now available to buy from nurseries.
(Harms, no date given; Jordan 2008; Kansas Native Plant Society, 2007-15; Tober and Jensen 2013; USDA NRCS 2002)