Grasses are seldom thought of as colorful, but little bluestem delights the eye with its color changes across the seasons. Starting out with bright green shoots in spring, the leaves deepen to bluish green by mid-summer. As summer progresses, red highlights appear, becoming more pronounced until by fall the stems turn rust-red. Some cultivars have been developed that have even more intense color, such as "The Blues" and "Blaze". Leave the swaying stems with their small puffs of seeds into winter before cutting them back to encourage new spring growth.
Little bluestem forms a clump about three feet tall by a foot wide. It prefers well-drained soils and full to part sun. Little bluestem actually grows best in low nutrient soils, and if it is fertilized or watered too often it will tend to flop over. It is very drought tolerant and hardy from Canada to Florida. Once established, little bluestem will grow for many years. Another benefit for gardeners in some areas is that little bluestem is very deer-resistant. New plants are easily grown from seed. Remember that if you start little bluestem from seed, the plants will be very small the first year since they put most of their energy into growing roots at first
There are many ways of using little bluestem in gardens. In a border or rock garden it can provide upright accents of fine foliage to contrast with flowering perennials. If using it in a border, pair it with other plants that prefer low-nutrient soils. For a great fall combination, try planting little bluestem with purple asters. Use it to provide a soft edge to a driveway by planting a line of it. It can be planted as a short screen along a foundation or deck.
Little bluestem is one of the best grasses for planting a short meadow. Using seeds or small plants, mix little bluestem with other grasses like broomsedge or pink muhly grass for the bulk of your meadow. Add in calico asters, New England aster, rough-leaved goldenrod, false wild indigo, butterfly milkweed, blazing star and beebalm for colorful flowers. In late winter mow or burn your meadow to encourage new growth and weed out any woody trees or shrubs.
Little bluestem grows in old fields, meadows and prairies, and along roadsides across the United States and Canada. Several species of skipper butterfly caterpillars feed on the leaves and birds use it for cover and for nesting material.
All photos courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder