Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Genus:Schizachyrium
Family:Poaceae (Grass)
Life cycle:perennial
Origin:native
Habitat:part shade, sun; average to dry, sandy soil; prairies, dunes, roadsides, railroads, open woods
Fruiting season:August - September
Plant height:1 to 3 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACU MW: FACU NCNE: FACU
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Cluster type: raceme

[photo of flowering branches] A single spike-like cluster at the tip of each branch and at the top of the stem. Spikes are 1 to 3 inches long, ascending to erect, typically purplish.

[photo of flowering spikelets] Spikelets (flower clusters) are in pairs all along the spike; 1 stalkless spikelet containing a single fertile, perfect flower (both male and female parts) and usually 1 stalked sterile spikelet that is smaller than the fertile spikelet, occasionally containing a single male flower. The glumes (pair of bracts at the base of a spikelet) of the fertile spikelet are ¼ to 3/8 inch long and equal in length, narrowly lance-elliptic with a sharply pointed tip. The lemma (bract at the base of a flower) of the fertile flower has an awn about 5/8 inch long that is slightly twisted and bent near its base. The sterile spikelet has a much shorter awn. Spikelet stalks are usually densely covered in fine hairs that are initially appressed but spread out as the spikelets mature.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of sheath, ligule and node] Leaves are crowded on the lower part of the stem with few on the upper plant. Leaves are flat or folded lengthwise, green to blue-green, up to 10 inches long and about ¼ inch wide, sometimes finely hairy but usually hairless except for sparse, long spreading hairs near the base. The sheath is open, forming a long “V” at the front, and usually hairless. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is white to brownish and up to 2 mm long. Nodes are hairless and purplish. The culm (stem) is erect and hairless with many short branches and is often bluish to purple. Plants grow in large, tight clumps and sometimes spread through short rhizomes. Stems take on a tan or reddish color in fall and persist through winter.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of mature spikelets] The spikelets spread out as they mature, the hairs on the stalks spreading as well, the spike taking on a feathery look and often arching. The entire spikelet eventually falls off. The seed that develops in the fertile spikelet is purplish brown, narrowly spindle shaped with a long taper to a pointed tip, and about as long as the spikelet.

Notes:

A pretty grass, Little Bluestem is another iconic species of prairies that once covered much of Minnesota. It is a host plant for several native butterflies and is popular in the garden trade as well as restoration projects. There are at least 3 recognized varieties of Schizachyrium scoparium (sometimes more depending on the reference), though the specific list varies and is apparently not universally accepted due to the wide natural variations of this species. Be that as it may, var. scoparium is one that is widely accepted, common throughout North America, and is the species found in Minnesota. It is characterized by the clump forming growth, most of the stalked spikelets being sterile (not staminate), and leaf blades and sheaths typically hairless, occasionally short-hairy.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Anoka and Ramsey counties. Other photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk.

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