Big Bluestem Grass Information And Tips

Big Bluestem Grass Information And Tips

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By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) is a warm season grass suited for arid climates. The grass was once widespread across North America prairies. Planting big bluestem has become an important part of erosion control on land that has been over grazed or farmed. It then provides shelter and forage for wildlife. Growing big bluestem grass in the home landscape can accent a native flower garden or border the open property line.

Big Bluestem Grass Information

Big Bluestem grass is a solid stemmed grass, which sets it apart from most grass species that have hollow stems. It is a perennial grass that spreads by rhizomes and seed. The stems are flat and have a bluish coloring at the base of the plant. In July through October the grass sports 3 to 6 foot (0.9 to 1.8 m.) tall inflorescences that become three part seed heads that resemble turkey feet. The clumping grass assumes a reddish hue in fall when it dies back until it resumes growth in spring.

This perennial grass is found in dry soil in prairies and arid zone woods across the southern United States. Bluestem grass is also part of the fertile tall grass prairies of the midwest. Big bluestem grass is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9. Sandy to loamy soils are ideal for growing big bluestem grass. The plant is adaptable to either full sun or partial shade.

Growing Big Bluestem Grass

Big bluestem has demonstrated that it may be invasive in some zones so it is a good idea to check with your county extension office before seeding the plant. The seed has improved germination if you stratify it for at least a month and it can then be planted inside or directly sown. Planting big bluestem grass may be done in late winter to early spring or when soils are workable.

Sow big bluestem seed at ¼ to ½ inch (6.4 to 12.7 mm.) deep. The sprouts will emerge in about four weeks if you irrigate consistently. Alternately, plant seed in plug trays in mid winter for transplant into the garden in spring.

Big bluestem grass seed can be purchased or harvested right from the seed heads. Collect seed heads when they are dry in September to October. Place the seed heads in paper bags in a warm area to dry for two to four weeks. Big bluestem grass should be planted after winter’s worst has passed so you will need to store the seed. Store it for up to seven months in a jar with a tightly sealed lid in a dark room.

Big Bluestem Cultivars

There are improved strains developed for widespread pasture use and erosion control.

  • ‘Bison’ was created for its cold tolerance and ability to grow in the northern climates.
  • ‘El Dorado’ and ‘Earl’ are big bluestem grass for forage for wild animals.
  • Growing big bluestem grass can also include ‘Kaw’, ‘Niagra’ and ‘ Roundtree’. These different cultivars are also used for game bird cover and to improve native planting sites.

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How to Germinate Big Bluestem Grass

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Sometimes called turkeyfoot grass, big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) is a 4- to 6-foot-tall species of perennial grass native to North America. It thrives within U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 to 9, where it is widely grown as an ornamental for its reddish-purple stems and feathery seed heads. Big bluestem grass grows effortlessly from seeds, which germinate most reliably under warm, bright conditions. Although they will successfully germinate outdoors, big bluestem grass seeds perform best when started indoors since the conditions can be more closely monitored and controlled.

Start big bluestem grass seeds indoors approximately six weeks before the last spring frost so the seedlings possess a mature root system by planting time.

Fill 4-inch nursery pots with a growing mixture made-up of 4 parts sterile compost and 1 part coarse sand. Leave the top inch of each pot empty. Firm the compost mixture.

Sprinkle six to ten big bluestem grass seeds onto the compost mixture and press them gently into the surface. Spread a very thin layer of compost over the seeds so they are covered but still slightly exposed.

Mist the compost with a spray bottle to settle it onto the seeds. Wrap each pot loosely in a sheet of plastic wrap to hold warmth and humidity around the seeds. Poke one or two holes in the plastic to allow excess moisture to escape.

Place the pots outdoors in a lightly shaded cold frame or indoors near a window with at least 10 hours of daylight each day. Provide additional light with a fluorescent lamp, if necessary.

Warm the pots with a propagation mat. Set the temperature to 75 F during the day and 65 F at night. Turn off the propagation mat if daytime temperatures exceed 75 F, to prevent heat stress.

Check the moisture level in the compost mixture every day to ensure it doesn't dry out. Add water when it feels barely moist just beneath the surface. Water with a spray bottle or atomizer to keep from dislodging the seeds.

Watch for sprouting in approximately four weeks. Remove and discard the plastic wrap after germination. Thin out half of the big bluestem grass seedlings once they reach 1 inch in height to prevent overcrowding.

Move the pots to a sheltered, lightly shaded area outdoors such as on a porch or against a lightly shaded, south-facing wall. Water the big bluestem grass seedlings to a depth of 1 inch weekly.

Transplant the big bluestem grasses into a permanent bed with sandy, fast-draining soil and full sun exposure in spring. Space multiple plants 2 to 3 feet apart.

Samantha McMullen began writing professionally in 2001. Her nearly 20 years of experience in horticulture informs her work, which has appeared in publications such as Mother Earth News.

Shape or Form:

Size and Form

Big bluestem is a tall, upright grass. Before flowering, it may grow 4 to 6 feet tall. Once in flower, it may be as tall as 8 feet .

Plant Care

Big bluestem tolerates heat and drought well.
While it is considered a clumping grass, it does actually spread slowly by rhizomes. It will also spread by seed.
This is a warm season grass, so it's most active growth occurs in summer. It will remain standing in winter and can act as winter interest.
Since this grass remains attractive through winter, it should not be cut back until early spring, before new growth begins. At that time, it can be cut down to the ground.

Disease, pests, and problems

Native geographic location and habitat

Native to Illinois and the Chicago region. This was the dominant grass of the prairies that once covered Illinois.

Leaf description

The alternate leaves are up to 2 feet long and 1/2 inch wide. In summer, the leaves are green, sometimes with a bluish cast or blue color at the nodes. In autumn, the leaves take on tones of bronze and red. During winter, the leaves are tan.

Flower description

Flowering occurs in late summer (usually August and September). The tiny, green to reddish flowers occur on three-branched structures (the reason for the common name, turkey foot). The branches of the flower cluster often have a purplish cast. The flowers are wind pollinated.

Fruit description

The small fruit (caryopsis or grains) form along the three branched structures that held the flowers.

Cultivars and their differences

“These plants are cultivars of a species that is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research. Cultivars are plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding or via vegetative propagation from wild plants identified to have desirable traits."

Indian Warrior (Andropogon gerardii 'Indian Warrior'): This cultivar takes on red and purple tones starting in mid-summer and extending into fall.

Red October (Andropogon gerardii 'Red October'): Another cultivar with good color. Summer leaves are green tipped with red. In autumn, the color changes to burgundy. After several frosts, the color becomes more scarlet.

Windwalker® (Andropogon gerardii 'PWIN01S'): Leaves are gray-blue in summer and maroon in fall.

Associated Lepidoptera:

Species that feed on big bluestem according to the literature are Oslar’s roadside skipper (Amblyscirtes oslari), Delaware skipper (Anatrytone logan), Arogos skipper (Atrytone arogos), dusted skipper (Atrytonopsis hianna), wheat head armyworm (Faronta diffusa), Dakota skipper (Hesperia dacotae), cobweb skipper (Hesperia metea), Ottoe skipper (Hesperia ottoe), Indian skipper (Hesperia sassacus), Newman’s borer (Meropleon ambifusca), and byssus skipper (Problema byssus).

Big bluestem nativars: ‘Lord Snowden’ and ‘Red October’

A habit of growth in graminoids, meaning that they grow in clumps.

A cultivar of a native plant.

The order that includes butterflies and moths.

Big Bluestem

The most widely distributed of prairie tall grasses, Big Bluestem was largely responsible for the formation of the famous prairie sod. The leaves and stems change color with the first frost to a deep red-bronze that provides landscape interest well …

Cultural Details
Soil Type Clay, Loam, Sand
Soil Moisture Dry, Medium, Moist
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Height 5' - 8'
Bloom Color Green, Red
Bloom Time Aug, Sep, Oct
Spacing 2'
Zones 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Root Type Fibrous
Benefits Birds, Host Plant, Deer Resistant
Seeds per Oz 8200
Propagation Treatment Dry Stratification
Direct Sowing Time Spring, Early Summer

The most widely distributed of prairie tall grasses, Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) was largely responsible for the formation of the famous prairie sod. The leaves and stems change color with the first frost to a deep red-bronze that provides landscape interest well into the winter. Andropogon gerardii will grow in almost any soil, from wet clay to dry sand. The iconic and distinctive three-parted seed heads resemble a turkeys foot, inspiring its alternative name - Turkey Foot.

Native plants can be grown outside of their native range in the appropriate growing conditions. This map shows the native range, as well as the introduced range, of this species.

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Little Bluestem is an excellent choice for meadows, slopes, wildflower gardens, and Micro-prairies. Since it is generally erect it can provide support for other nearby perennials and help keep them upright. I use this and it’s cousin, Big Bluestem for providing this mutual support. But the changing colors of Little Bluestem make it an interesting plant to look at year round. I also love the wildlife it helps support by providing food to the little Skipper Butterflies as well as songbirds. It is kind of like having a natural bird feeder in your yard!

Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem in our backyard Micro-Prairie

I have germinated dozens of these plants for use along the border of our backyard woods. I also use it inside of our backyard micro-prairie. Building micro-prairies using native plants are a great way to support native pollinators/bees and bring the wildlife to your backyard. Click on the link below to see our guide on making your own ‘pocket prairie’ or backyard wildflower garden:

Is Little Bluestem Invasive?

Little Bluestem can become invasive in a well manicured, mulched flower bed. It will distribute seed throughout the area, and this seed will germinate. To prevent this, you need to clip off the spikelets before the seed heads turn white and feathery.

Companion Plants for Little Bluestem

If you are working to establish these plants on disturbed sites for erosion control, it is best to plant more species. Studies have shown that in poor soils the biomass of Little Bluestem is increased with competition with other native grasses and plants. Buffalo grass particularity helped the biomass of both itself and Little Bluestem according to this study of an infertile site. So, mix up the grasses!

But a few plants that benefit from having some erect grasses nearby to provide support include False Sunflower, Echinacea Purpurea, Aromatic and New England Aster, and even Giant Sunflower.

Watch the video: 300 year old Big Bluestem Grass and the van Roon Prairie Garden Planting


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