Our local fields often contain a native grass that has a winter presence which is hard to miss. I have seen it turn a rich rusty red, although this winter it’s a tan like the color of mocha. What triggers the darker color is usually a wet fall. I remember the winter of 2001 when it was the darkest I had ever seen and virtually impossible to ignore. Commonly known as little bluestem, it differs from big bluestem by growing lower, only two feet tall, and having much better winter color. A native of most of North America, and the official state grass of Nebraska, it is botanically known as Schizachyrium scoparium. The name is Greek in origins, schizein, to split and achuron for chaff, referring to the upper lemma. A lemma, in simple terms, is the shorter leafy blade that surrounds the small feathery plume. Prior to being labeled schizachyrium it was known as andropogon, from Greek – man, and pogon – beard. This describes the small divided plumes, like miniature beards, a dirty blond color.
Farmers see this grass as a sign of poor soil and pasture land that has a low pH. Another common name is povertygrass, probably coined from the perception that a farm is poorly maintained, not mowed or home to livestock . Cows and horses will feed on it but it’s too coarse for sheep. As with any true grass, the deer don’t eat little bluestem but the seed is favored by several species of grouse, here the ruffed grouse. As native plants have become more and more popular, this one is available.
When actively growing, the blades can be very blue, hence the common name. Kurt Bluemel, a grass grower in Maryland selected one from a field that was bluer in color with a slightly wider leaf blade and named it ‘The Blues’. A more recent introduction is Schizachyrium ‘Standing Ovation’, from North Creek nursery in Pennsylvania. This excellent selection is very upright and a beautiful gray-blue while it’s actively growing.
All have a real presence in the winter garden, with elongated leaves that twist and twirl. Good companion plants include the hinoki cypress – Chamaecyparis ‘Rheingold’, the deciduous native hollies with their bright berries, and any red stemmed shrub or tree such as the red twig dogwood or Acer ‘Sango kaku’, a wonderful Japanese maple with bright red branches.