The Perennial Plant Association, a professional association composed of growers, garden retailers, landscape designers, and horticultural educators, has selected Little Bluestem grass as the 2022 Perennial Plant of the Year. Due to the collective expertise of the professionals voting on this designation, we have high regard for this title and are pleased that a Wisconsin prairie native grass has been selected!
It was once the dominant prairie grass in Wisconsin and covered most of the plain states. As such, it is ideally adapted to our harsh Midwestern growing conditions. It is supremely cold tolerant and thrives in dry, low-fertility soil. As a matter of fact, moist soil or those rich in nutrients may cause this plant to lose its distinctive straight-and-narrow upright form.
Little Bluestem takes its name from the blue color cast on its foliage. Selections have been made over time and there are now a number of cultivars available that display consistent intense blue leaf color. When the temperature drops in autumn the color changes to a rich coppery red-bronze, often with purple overtones. This color will last throughout the winter.
Little Bluestem is notable for its very erect, vertical, upright growth habit. However, the straight species (Schizachyrium scoparium) can be prone to “flopping” when grown in rich soil. Newer cultivars have been selected that are resistant to this behavior. For most of the season, the basal foliage grows not much taller than 18”-24” but late in the season the flowering stems will emerge and can grow as tall as 48”, depending on the cultivar. When seeds are produced, the seed heads have a wispy appearance that gives the effect of illumination when backlit. These seeds are also utilized as a food source by native songbirds.
Little Bluestem is especially striking when planted en masse. It also combines beautifully with summer or fall-flowering perennials such Calamintha, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Asters, Vernonia ‘Iron Butterfly’, and Sedums. Its blue foliage color makes it well suited to pairing with a backdrop of dark-colored foliage such as that of purple leaf Ninebark, Smokebush, or Weigela.