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.
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.
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.
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.