A Bit of Bluestem Beauty

Little bluestem ~ Kendall County, Texas

Accustomed to seeking out autumn color in trees, vines, and shrubs, it’s easy to forget that grasses, too, can contribute to the pleasures of autumn and early winter.

One of my favorites, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is named for the greenish-blue color its stems show off in summer. As the year progresses, blue transforms to various shades of rusty red, and prairies begin to glow with a special vibrancy beneath the rising or setting sun.

Whether found in ditches or pristine preserves, the grass is beautiful, holding its color throughout the winter for the pleasure of humans, and providing cover and seed for small mammals and birds.

Little bluestem against winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) ~ Diamond Grove Prairie, Missouri
Comments always are welcome.


48 thoughts on “A Bit of Bluestem Beauty

    1. The most interesting thing about that sumac is that it was growing only atop mima mounds. A young woman with the Nature Conservancy had noticed the phenomenon, but wasn’t sure of the reason. She suggested different, more receptive soil in the mounds, or birds perching on the higher spots of land and leaving seeds behind. It could be both, or course, or something entirely different. In any event, it was interesting to compare those mounds with the ones at Nash prairie, which sport quite different plants.

    1. One of the most thrilling sights I’ve seen was the Kansas prairies in fall, covered with a variety of grasses, but thick with little bluestem. We have areas down here where the bluestem’s as thick, but the flat land doesn’t provide the same kind of views. There’s nothing quite like curves of blue sky and rust-colored grasses — and nothing else.

    1. Bluestem fluff is sturdy stuff, too. I have a fairly large bouquet of it in a vase — I collected it from a ditch in Comfort a few Christmases ago. It’s still attractive — perhaps because of the very light application of hairspray I provided: not the heavy sort of lacquer that was used for beehives (!!) but something a little more modern.

    1. There are creatures who use it as nesting material. It may not be quite as cozy as a down comforter, but I suspect it helps to make those nests and hidey-holes more homelike.

      1. I’ll bet you are right, Linda. If I were a little mouse of sparrow, I would definitely want my nest lined with plant ‘down.’ Did you know that various types of down for sleeping bags is evaluated by its fill power. Higher quality down fluffs up more, creates more dead space and holds in more heat. It is also lighter and compresses down more, essential qualities for a good sleeping bag. As the quality goes up, so does the price. We are talking $500 or more for the best of the bags. –Curt

    1. It’s one of the most important tallgrass prairie grasses, along with big bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass. When I was keeping an eye on the prairies that were burned a while back, the bluestem was putting out new shoots within days. It’s as resilient as it is beautiful.

    1. Thanks so much. There’s nothing I enjoy more than wandering around and noticing things, and then learning about what I’ve seen. Nature is an artist — no doubt about that — and even the least of her works is worth notice.

    1. Ah, there it is: a question for the ages. Too many people have forgotten that we, too, are a part of nature, and that we are meant to fit in. How we do that’s another question, I suppose. In any event, learning that grasses are more than something to be mowed is a start!

    1. As delicate as they seem, they’re tough. You might be interested to know that deer tend not to browse native prairie grasses, including this one: nor do pronghorn antelope. Of course, pronghorn aren’t common in your area apart from the game ranches, but if you have deer and antelope playing around your home, they’ll leave these grasses alone.

      1. Thanks for the info, Linda. We have some other type of decorative grass here which the deer don’t eat. I don’t know the name, I need to ask Mary.
        Have a wonderful day,

  1. These could only be more lovely with a little frost clinging to them! Thanks, Linda. You know, of course, that once you said ‘blue,’ you’d have my attention!! I’ll have to Google it so I can see just how blue the stems are!

    1. I’d be happy to show you a photo of them in their ‘blue’ stage, but I don’t have a single one. I suspect that’s because there are so many flowers blooming during the grasses’ growing season that I give them more attention. I’ve seen this grass with dew on it; I can only imagine how lovely frost would be. I might have a better chance of seeing that if I were a little more diligent about getting out early when it’s cold.

    1. Lovely, Gerard. And you’ve hinted at another wonderful feature of these grasses: the sound that they make when the wind plays over them. It’s not as obvious as tree limbs clacking together, but it’s a lovely sound nonetheless.

  2. Fantastic capture of little blue stem. Little blue is one grass that I have always loved and the colors here are nature at its best. I absolutely love these two photos but the first is so pretty, I think you should frame it.

    1. They are pretty, aren’t they? When conditions are just right, the color seems especially vibrant, and I think the rain and warmth that came along this year, combined with some truly cold weather early in the season, helped them gain a little extra glow. I’m glad these appeal to you — I think I remember you mentioning before that you enjoy the grasses, and these certainly are worthy of admiration.

    1. It’s beautiful, and it’s interesting how attractive it can be even on a gloomy day. Add sunshine, and it really glows. I never get tired of looking at it, especially when it’s colorful and in seed.

    1. All of the bluestems have fine qualities. The bushy bluestem always makes me smile — it’s so frowzy — and the silver is spectacular with backlighting. In some ways the big bluestem takes pride of place because of its size, but they’re all worth a few (hundred) portraits.

  3. They look like pussy willows having a bad hair day — ! I’d much prefer the biodiversity of a prairie yard to same-old Bermuda grass (an invasive species if ever there was one!)

    1. Here’s a page that might be of interest to you. Click on the grasses section, and you’ll find some good recommendations. Of course, there’s plenty of information about native flowers, too.

      Pussy willows having a bad hair day made me laugh. I always liked the smooth silkiness of pussy willow catkins. It never occurred to me to wonder what they’d look like in a less elegant phase.

  4. Beautiful photos, Linda. I see coppery tones in the grass in the first image. We don’t have vastness in our landscapes here, so I am trying to imagine prairies thick with blue stem grass. I imagine it’s an awe-inspiring sight.

    1. I haven’t been very happy with my Kansas prairie photos for a variety of reasons: not least of which was the amount of smoke and soybean harvest dust in the air while I was visiting. But here’s one view that gives a sense of that coppery tone and what the Tallgrass Express celebrated as that “clean curve of hill against sky.”

    1. Native grasses are underrated. They not only provide food and shelter, they’re quite beautiful, and far more intricate than I ever realized. I grew up with that wonderful, soft, green midwestern lawn, and for years that was my standard for a “good grass.” You could run barefoot on it, and play croquet. I still enjoy opportunities to do things like that, but wandering a field of bluestem has its joys, too.

  5. Both of these are nice! Very festive-looking grass, I’d be tempted to tuck a couple of these plumes in my hat (although not during deer season! :) ) I always read the comments on your posts, and like Gerard Oosterman’s poem, too. I only became aware of these bluestems this summer, but it did appear, as you said, that deer don’t graze on them – – but I see conservation sites suggesting it as a forage crop for eroded areas. I’ll have to just give it a taste, and make up my own mind, usually I chew on a stalk of timothy, but it’s good to try new things.

    1. While you’re thinking about buying your ranch and developing your herd, there’s a plethora of wonderful information about palatable grasses, as well as a few pluses and minuses for native grasses, here.

      Every time I start digging into a new area like this, I’m astonished by how much knowledge ranchers and farmers have — and need, to make a go of things. Of course, as a south Texas friend once said to me, a strong back doesn’t hurt. She had me out one weekend to introduce me to the game known as fence pulling, and by the time we were done, I was ready to declare the fence the winner.

      I think timothy might be a nicer chew than little bluestem. A fellow who grew up chewing on it had this to say:

      “Timothy was unintentionally introduced to North America. In 1711 John Herd found the Eurasian native growing wild along the Piscataqua River near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He called it “herd grass.” That’s almost clever. He talked it up and it was grown in southern Canada, New England area and New York.”

      “In 1720 a Timothy Hanson moved from New England to Baltimore and began to cultivate the seed and sell it. He was the first person in the new world who grew, bagged and sold hay seed. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were admirers of the grass and Franklin is credited with calling it “Timothy Seed” in a latter dated 16 July, 1747. The name was shortened to Timothy and it stuck. It is found nearly everywhere in North America and even in Greenland though here in Florida it is naturalized only in the Miami area. I sometimes wonder what my youth would have been like — and adulthood — had Messers Herd, Hanson, Washington and Franklin not known good grass when they saw and tasted it.”

  6. I love this Little Bluestem grass. Many nature lovers tend to look for the extraordinary in Nature, but am a great fan of ordinary grasses with their texture, shape and colour through the seasons.

    1. It’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes it seems the colorful birds and flowers get all the attention, rather than the house sparrows and grasses that are all around us. I’m as fond of the bright, flashy ones as the next person, but a little attention paid to the common, seemingly ordinary, bits of nature surrounding us can yield great rewards.

    1. Thanks, Dina. I think you must have some grasses in your garden; I’ll have to look closer and see.

      I was thinking about you this afternoon when a friend forwarded something to me that I’m sure you’ve seen — the 2016 John Lewis Christmas advert. I love that they included a hedge hog — have any of yours ever jumped for joy in such a way?

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