​A Drought-tolerant, Native Warm-season Grass for Almost Any Landscape

Bluestem grass at the UT Gardens, Knoxville
In addition to its upright habit, the native warm-season grass little bluestem has many favorable attributes, including drought tolerance. Photo of specimen in the UT Gardens, Knoxville, by A. Pulte. Download image​.

From the UT Gardens

December 2017 Plant of the Month: Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium​

Submitted by Dr. Andy Pulte, the University of Tennessee Department of Plant Sciences

When I first learned about little bluestem I remember thinking about how interesting the scientific name was and how hard it was to pronounce: Schizachyrium (skits-ah-KEER-ee-um) scoparium (skoh-PAIR-ee-um).  The genus name Schizachyrium comes from the Latin schizein meaning to split and achyron meaning chaff. The specific epithet scoparium means broomlike.  If you take a good look at this upright native prairie plant you get the picture of how it got its name.

Perhaps, when grown in the right conditions – full sun, in drier, well-drained, low nutrient soil (think parking lot median or a sunny hillside) – there is not a grass with a longer season of interest.  As the month of December dawns, little bluestem takes center stage with other native warm-season grasses as green becomes less a part of the landscape. A tough plant? Yes, when some 400,000 acres of prairie covered North America, little bluestem was a major component of that grassland system. And to survive in that world you needed to endure competition from other plants, buffalo and frequent fires.  

After areas are disturbed, often you will see little bluestem as one of the first new plants to arrive on the scene. It requires very little care in the home landscape, including infrequent to no waterings after establishment and perhaps a trim after the fear of frost has passed in the spring. Home gardeners assume the buffalo’s role and rejuvenate the plant by cutting it just above the circular crown, allowing its bluish-grey spring growth to emerge unencumbered.  And that is basically all it needs to thrive.  

There are many garden-worthy selections of little bluestem on the market, some chosen for wonderful spring color, some chosen for rich copper and orange fall shades. Still more have been been chosen for their sturdy upright habit. Many have several overlapping attributes and all maintain their drought tolerance and stability in the garden. This grass is native to all but three states and extends its range into parts of Canada. As with other warm-season grasses, it is best to add little bluestem to your garden in late spring when soil temperatures become more accommodating. Winter is a time to enjoy and dream about what is too come – perhaps little bluestem will find a home in your landscape next year.

You can find little bluestem on display at the UT Gardens, Knoxville, and in the Plateau Discovery Gardens in Crossville.

The UT Gardens includes plant collections located in Knoxville, Jackson and Crossville. Designated as the official botanical garden for the State of Tennessee, the collections are part of the UT Institute of Agriculture. The Gardens’ mission is to foster appreciation, education and stewardship of plants through garden displays, educational programs and research trials. The Gardens are open during all seasons and free to the public. For more information, see the Gardens website: ag.tennessee.edu/utg.



Andy Pulte, UT Department of Plant Sciences, 865-974-8820, apulte@utk.edu​