Our Glorious Grasses ~ Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem ~ Colorado County, Texas

Neither so stolid and stout as Bushy Bluestem, nor so light and ethereal as Gulf Muhly, Little Bluestem is a practical and self-effacing grass; throughout the growing season it fills the prairies with hardly a notice until autumn’s shorter days and cooler nights turn its color to a lovely and recognizable rust.

Backlit Little Bluestem ~ Diamond Grove Prairie, Missouri

Together with Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Little Bluestem  (Schizachyrium scoparium) is considered one of the ‘big four’ of the tallgrass prairie. Big Bluestem and Indian Grass typically grow to a height of five or six feet — or even more — while Little Bluestem, the shortest of the grasses, averages three feet.

Native in almost every state, Little Bluestem is well adapted to tallgrass, mixed, and shortgrass prairies. In Kansas, home to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, it can be found in every county. Outside of the preserve, a multitude of Flint Hills roads lead into open range, where walking out into the grasslands, reveling in the sights, sounds, and smells of an earlier time, is possible.

Open range ~ Chase County, Kansas

The roots of Little Bluestem help to keep soil  secure from the wind, and its stems’ ability to hold rain and snow close to the ground allow moisture to be absorbed rather than quickly evaporating. The decaying grasses also add organic matter to the soil.

Its sturdy, closely-packed stems protect innumerable insects, even over the winter. Many birds depend on its seeds for food, while ground nesters can be found beneath its protective canopy. The large grazing animals of the past, such as bison, once relied on little bluestem forage; even today, antelope, elk, and protected bison graze bluestem-covered hills.

Brazoria Wildlife Refuge ~ Brazoria County, Texas

In spring, the bluestem prairies are filled with flowers, but even in fall, taking the time to walk into one can be an unforgettable experience. I suspect the poet William Stafford walked into a few, and found there the inspiration for his poem, “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.
Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed — or were killed — on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.
Backlit Little Bluestem ~ San Bernard Wildlife Refuge, Texas


Comments always are welcome.

74 thoughts on “Our Glorious Grasses ~ Little Bluestem

  1. Having grown up on the prairie, I love to see grasses–the colors, the way they move in the wind. There’s such a beauty in that landscape and it’s good to be reminded of its place in the ecosystem–what it shelters and feeds and protects. We had a lot of sage grass (broom sedge/ Andro-something virginicus) where I grew up and I was always struck by its beauty.

        1. I’ve never heard the phrase ‘crone hair.’ Even the search engines weren’t much help. They kept showing me photos of women with long gray hair, or articles about crones. The synonyms certainly weren’t complimentary!

    1. Where I grew up, ‘grass’ meant a well-tended lawn, and that meant one without dandelions or other troublesome ‘weeds.’ It wasn’t until the last decade or so, after being introduced to prairies, that I began to appreciate the variety of native grasses. There still are many I haven’t identified (although I suspect they might be native) and a few that delight because of their architectural appearance in winter.

      I looked up your broom sedge and found it mostly east of me; it’s not listed for any of the places I highlighted in this post, although it comes close. It is a pretty one.

  2. That’s a nice opening spread contrasting the brown frieze of mature little bluestem with the white of the clouds and the blue band of the sky. It’s good that you could show this mature grass in several states.

    That’s a great theme from William Stafford. It even incorporates rhyme, a rarity in poetry these days.

    1. That’s one reason I enjoy Stafford; his poems tend to have a more poetic feel than many published in recent decades.

      I’ve always found it hard to photograph large swaths of prairie. The Kansas photo has the advantage of varying altitudes, and in the first image, the grasses bending in from both left and right, and the obvious wind in the clouds, helped somewhat.

    1. I’ve had people ask how I could move so easily from ocean sailing to prairies. One reason is the horizon; whether it’s a watery sea or a sea of grass, that stays the same. I still remember the disorientation I felt after only a year in Salt Lake City, surrounded by the Wasatch mountains. When I moved to Houston, I drove, and once I got to west Texas, it was a little unnerving to see horizon all around.

      1. I have heard that from people who grew up in flat lands. I guess in the mountains, you just have to know where you are. We spent almost every weekend driving around in the family station wagon and hiking the woods.

        1. Not only that, when you’ve spent your formative years in a place like Iowa, where the land is divided into neat squares by roads that run true north/south and east/west, learning how to navigate in places with curved roads (gasp!) that have names rather than helpful numbers takes time — not to mention learning how not to get lost in the woods.

    1. It is beautiful and beneficial. Even better, it’s deer and rabbit resistant, which makes it a terrific landscape grass. Of course ‘resistant’ in this case depends on the number of deer or rabbits cruising the neighborhood, and the amount of more pleasing food available to them, but at least it gives the gardener a fighting chance.

    1. It’s native in your area, too. I’d bet you a bottle of Corkpopper’s good wine that you have some growing out at the ditch. If you get out there in all the holiday hubbub, have a look. It will stay erect and colorful even in early snows.

  3. Your phrase ‘open range’ brought a smile on my face. That’s the title of a movie some years ago, a western with Kevin Costner. And guess where they found the location to shoot the movie on the open range? Right here in my province, Alberta. Check it out.

      1. Don’t think there will be a caution sign here. However part of the land they shot the movie in was in the Stoney Indian Reserve. So there may be signs so people don’t trespass. That’s a good movie(2003). I liked it, that’s being impartial to the location and the actor.

        1. Most of the time, signs like that are a gentle reminder to watch for free-ranging cattle. One of the delights of spending time at the Attwater Preserve is coming nose to nose with them; they’re handsome as can be, and their grazing helps to create ‘pathways’ among the grasses for the ground-dwelling birds.

    1. You’re not in moderation and you didn’t get thrown in spam, so who knows? It may not even have been WordPress; there are ‘things’ happening around the internet just now that are causing a few disruptions. Anyway: you’re never incoherent, only occasionally opinionated! Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Beautiful photos, Linda. Open prairie is a sight I hope to see one day in person. Bluestem is a pretty grass, esp. in the fall. And lastly, a grass that we can grow here!

    1. One of the nice things about this bluestem is that it’s willing to hold on to its fluff for some time, making it a perfect addition to a floral arrangement. And here’s a tip: a very light spritz with hairspray will keep your little bluestem looking perky for months on end. I’m sure some of mine lasted a couple of years with its fluff intact.

  5. Another great grasses post with photos to match! Well done, Linda. I’m so happy to have 3 of these beauties in my newly full-sun space. I’ve been to the LBJWC several times recently and they’re gorgeous there and enjoyed seeing them in the Hill Country in October.

      1. Thanks for telling me. Since I’m not on Facebook, I would have missed it. I can’t really ‘see’ it anyway, since FB obscures it with a big splash screen telling me to log in or register, but I’m glad someone saw fit to share the post. That’s really great.

    1. My ‘favorite’ grass usually is the one I’m looking at, but there’s something about Little Bluestem that seems especially endearing. Some call it nondescript, but that’s hardly the case. Even before its flowering and color change, it’s a lovely one. It will be fun to see it developing in your garden — not to mention learning which of your multitude of critters make use of it in one way or another!

      Are you done with you planning and planting now, or are there more tasks ahead? I just noticed you have a new post up; that may offer some clues.

  6. The poem and your photos are a perfect match. Love them. Also, that’s a great tip about using hairspray on bluestem in a floral arrangement. I will try to remember it for when I make my next dried arrangement.

    1. Stafford is a fine poet. I’ve been reading through some of his work, and this was one of the surprises I found. It did hit the mark, nicely.

      I’ve used hairspray on cattails and thistles as well as grasses, and it works well. It doesn’t have to be expensive, either. Some friends swore by their $1.94 cans of Aqua Net, and that’s what I’ve used. Since I don’t use it on my hair, one can ought to last my lifetime — and beyond.

  7. I like that non-battlefield poem, like those brass plaques you see sometimes that say “On this site in 1975 nothing happened.”
    And it’s a very pretty grass you’ve got there. I was thinking that if you wanted to go riding around the prairies where its bigger cousins were growing 5-6 feet high, you’d really want to shop around for a pretty tall horse, so you could see where you’re going, or maybe put a crows nest on your Prairie Schooner.

    1. From what I’ve been told, suggesting that someone ‘get off his high horse’ wouldn’t have been the best advice back in the days of those really expansive prairies. The last time I was in Kansas, I talked with a man whose father and grandfather both rode those ranges, and he confirmed what you suspected; the grasses often were so tall that the horse would be entirely hidden, and only the rider would be visible, moving mysteriously across the prairie. What a terrific sight that would have been! If the trail boss went riding, instead of a headless horseman, you’d have a horseless head man.

        1. I just learned something from your comment. From Michigan Public Radio: “‘Honcho’ came into English from Japanese in the 1940s. It originated around American prisoners of war in Japan. In Japanese, a ‘honcho’ is a group leader or squad leader. American soldiers continued to use ‘honcho’ during the Korean War. It came into common usage in the U.S. in the 1960s.”

          It seems like you already knew what I just learned: that ‘head honcho’ is a redundancy.

  8. A sea of grass, crossed by prairie schooner. I’m supposing this was the sod that had to have a special plowshare invented to bust it’s root-bound density. If this prairie had been left to its own devices, us’ns up in the Flatlands wouldn’t have had so much dirt mixed in with our 30-35 mph winds with gusts up to 50 mph yesterday, never mind so many tumbleweeds (which are a vicious, nasty, invasive, non-native species, BTW!).

    1. I still have the tumbleweed (aka ‘Russian thistle’) I pulled from a fence outside Dodge City. They sure are invasive; the Texas Invasive Species Institute has a page filled with interesting and useful information. This historical tidbit caught my eye: “Russian thistle was accidentally introduced to the United States by immigrants in 1873 in contaminated flax seeds brought to South Dakota. Further spread was facilitated by more contaminated flax in railroad cars and natural wind spread of seeds.”

      Speaking of wind-spread seeds, how about this?

      I saw there were wind warnings and fire watches up your way. That wind made it all the way to the coast; the gale warnings have been lifted now, but the cypress trees have pretty much been stripped of their needles. Whether some of your dirt made it this far, I can’t say, but we’d be happy to send it back.

    1. I’ve been reading a good bit of Stafford, but this one was new to me, too. It’s a quiet and self-effacing poem that perfectly suits what I imagine as the nature of this grass.

    1. Once again, Gerard, you’ve introduced me to something new. I’d never heard of Tibetan Spaniels, and after pondering some photos, it’s clear they’d profit from a bit of brushing and grooming from time to time.

      Until you mentioned your aunt, I’d forgotten that famous line from the story of the three little pigs; the wolf asks the third pig to let him in the house, and the pig replies, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.” Here’s your odd fact for the day; there is a Bornean bearded pig, although there’s no evidence that any of the people responsible for popularizing the wolf-and-pigs folk tale ever made it to Borneo.

        1. When I read about the breed, one quality that was highlighted was their companionable gentleness. I thought it was interesting that they were common in Tibetan monasteries and such, serving as companions to the monks. Bentley certainly has turned out to be a good companion for you.

    1. That trip through the midwestern prairies was possibly the best of my life. If I could manage one more long trip in my life, I’d not choose Paris or the Galapagos, I’d head back to the midwest and visit some of the places I missed — as well as revisiting others. I know so much more now, and am a better photographer, so no matter where I went, it would be even more enjoyable.

    1. There’s nothing like the presence of a few clouds to add drama. Along the coast, where everything’s so flat, they add a bit of what’s naturally present in places like the Flint Hills: altitude. Looking at the photo from Brazoria, it occurred to me that adding a step ladder like the one Steve carries with him might have improved that image by allowing me to shoot a broader expanse of the grass.

  9. Pretty … and practical. A perfect combination, Linda. It’s rather sad though that we don’t give these grasses more credit. Sure, they’re not showy like a field of bluebonnets, but when one considers all they do for the soil and our critters, one has to admire them.

    1. I suspect part of the problem is that many people haven’t been ‘properly introduced’ to them, Debbie. I spent most of my life seeing-but-not-seeing the grasses. When you pass them while driving, it doesn’t seem there would be much of interest. But when you stop, and take time to walk among them and see the variety and details, it’s a different story. It’s like any relationship. It takes time to get to know a person, or a prairie, but even before that, someone needs to say, “Hey. Come over here. I’d like you to meet Little Bluestem!”

  10. I checked on the net to see where I could find it in Oregon, Linda, and here is the info I found “is a species of North American prairie grass native to most of the contiguous United States (except California, Nevada, and Oregon) So, I guess I will just have to wait until I get to Texas, or Kansas, or some 43 other states. But sometimes I envision vast herds of buffalo working their way across the open and unending prairie, munching away. I would have given a lot to see that. –Curt

    1. If you make your way to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, you’ll not see vast herds, but you can see a good sized herd doing their thing. I’ve only been there in the fall, but a friend visited there in spring and posted this sweet and amusing video of bison calves playing in the hills. Their exuberance is so funny; they’re like puppies. If you watch closely you can see the signs of affection between the mamas and babies.

      I just looked at the maps, and sure enough — there’s that big, blank, grassless space where you live. To paraphrase a certain Seinfeld character: “No little bluestem for you!”

      1. Cute little tykes. That’s pretty much what the fawns do here, Linda. And the moms are always grooming their babies.
        We live outside the prairie zone for sure. There are big valleys, however, and no lack of native grasses to worry about as they disappear.

  11. We are restoring a tall grass prairie locally and bluestems were an important part of the seed mix, and they are starting to appear in all their glory. We’ll see what this coming spring brings. Vesper Sparrows have already bred there and during the summer two male Bobolinks were checking the habitat. And this doesn’t even begin to take account of the butterflies and other insects.

    1. I remembered you mentioning your restoration, and linked to your posts about it for some of my other readers. Given how quickly I’ve seen prairie come back after a burn, and seeing what mowing can do, I suspect you’ll see quite a change next spring. I listened again to the song of the Bobolink; what a pleasure to have those birds around.

  12. I know so little about species of grass that I love reading these posts and learning. I have, however, always loved the look of much of the wild grass I see, how beautiful the tufted tips that we never get to see around our lawns when we have to constantly keep it mowed short. Unfortunately, though, living where I do I cringe at the thought of walking through fields of this grass knowing the number of ticks I’d need to find and remove afterwards.

    1. Ah, yes. Ticks. We have them, but not in the same numbers as our mosquitoes, chiggers, and fireants. You may already know about Sawyer Permethrin. I use it in combination with Picaridin spray, and it works so well. Even better, both are safe around cameras, binoculars, and so on. Anything that can fend off ticks, chiggers, and mosquitoes is a friend of mine.

      There are so many pretty grasses. I have a hard time identifying many of them, but once I became familiar with the ones I’ve shown, I could spot them even in their earlier stages. Little bluestem actually tends toward a blue-green until fall, when it turns this wonderful rust color. It’s worth waiting for.

    1. Stafford is such a fine poet. It’s worth noting that he was a pacifist, and that he spent the 1940s with other conscientious objectors in work camps in Arkansas and California. There wasn’t much distance between Stafford the poet and Stafford the person.

    1. We may not have mountains or rocky coasts, but we have our grasses. In the old days, they were expansive as the sea; ‘prairie schooners’ were named for a reason!

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