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Bluestem Native Grasses
Little Bluestem & Big Bluestem

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BLUESTEMS - Native Grasses

Blue stem grasses are one of the main group of native grasses of the Great Plains and extended over more of the mid-west than they do today.

The blue grasses are large bunching grasses which provided the huge forage supply for the great herds of buffalo, deer, elk, and other animals that made up the populations of the early continent of North America.

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Over the decades climate changes shifted the natural growing range and the grasses adapted by extending or limiting their area of growth. These grasses grew anywhere from one foot in height to six or more.

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It truly must have looked like a large sea of grass as it was called by the early populations moving onto the vast expansions of land. When the Europeans moved into the region and started farming and clearing huge tracts of acreage these grasses were replaced with other crops.

Many of the grasses were used by the early settlers for housing and feeding the large number of livestock they brought with them. The Chippewa Indians used big bluestem for medicinal, cooking and housing purposes. The grasses were in large part a natural erosion barrier. Their thick and high growth did not allow the extreme heat and wind to get to the ground.

Bluestem Native Grass Varieties

Bluestem grasses are warm season, native, perennial grasses that come in several varieties and are used for forage, landscaping, wildlife, conservation, erosion control. Bluestem grasses are found in most of the US and were most prevalent in the mid western prairies when the large herds of buffalo and other large grazers covered the land.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii): is the tallest of the bluestem grasses (up to 10') and grows in the loamiest soils, although it will tolerate sandy, low fertility soil and drought type conditions. The USDA hardiness zones for big bluestem native grass are 4 to 9 which covers southern Canada to Florida and into Mexico and as far west as Montana.

Uses for Big Bluestem Native grass:
  • Erosion control - Planted to stabilize soil and protect against wind erosion
  • Forage - Makes a high quality forage for all classes livestock. Good pasture grass and hay production
  • Wildlife - Deer graze the grass while song birds consume seeds. Provides shelter for nesting game birds.
  • Landscaping - Use as a border or accent in a flower garden. Great for wildflower meadows and prairie plantings.

Little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium): grows up to 3 foot tall and is the shortest of these three varieties. Little Bluestem is one of the most widely distributed native grasses in North America, being distributed throughout the US and Canada. It will grow in a wide variety of soils including infertile soils. Little Bluestem has excellent drought tolerance, poor flood tolerance and fair shade tolerance. It prefers soils with a ph of 7.0 and slightly higher.

Uses For Little Bluestem Native Grass:
  • Forage - Readily grazed by livestock Little Bluestem makes a fair grazing crop and hay production crop.
  • Erosion Control - Useful in re-vegetation mixes. Well suited for use on thin upland regions and is adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions.
  • Wildlife - Grazed by deer and Elk and the seed is eaten by song birds and upland game birds. Provides cover for ground birds and small mammals.
  • Landscaping - Useful as an ornamental plant due to it's attractive blue-green color during growing season and the rusty color with white fluffy seed heads in the fall.

Sand blue stem (Andropogon hallii ): Found on sandy or sand and loam soils this variety of the bluestems reaches a height of 7'. Sand Bluestem is adapted throughout the mid-west and Great Plains Region. This is a variety that developed naturally in the sandier soils of the prairie regions. This bluestem is a native, perennial, warm season grass and is genetically linked to the big bluestem and can be cross bred with the big bluestem to produce strains that are more adaptive and more productive for forage purposes.

Uses For Sand Bluestem Native Grass:
  • Forage - A good to excellent forage due to high yield and palatability.
  • Erosion Control - Great for stabilizing sandy soil.
  • Wildlife - Excellent for grazing by deer and other grazing wildlife. Excellent habitat plant for nesting upland birds. Seeds also provide food for wildlife.
  • Landscaping - Sand bluestem is great for xeriscape gardens and because of its erect growth makes a border plant for lawns and flowerbeds.

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