The king of native grasses, big bluestem has handsome gray to blue-green stems in spring, turning to green alternating with deep red in summer, then to coppery red in fall. Three-fingered seed heads top tall stems in August. Clump forming with excellent drought tolerance once established.
It may be grown as an ornamental grass because of its attractive foliage which changes color seasonally, its good architectural height and its interesting flower/seed heads. Flowering stems bring total height of this grass to 4-8′ tall (typically at the taller end in moist soils and the shorter end in dry soils).
Best massed in wildflower meadows or naturalized areas. Also effective in back of borders or native plant gardens as a screen or accent. Extensive root system makes this a good grass for erosion control.
Cultivars / Varieties
NRCS Plants Materials Program (PMC) has released several cultivars of big bluestem. ‘Bison’ – released by Bismarck, ND PMC released ‘Bison’ for its adaptation to northern climates. It is used for erosion control, upland game bird cover and nesting, nature trails, rural beautification and other native plantings.
‘Eldorado’ – released by the Knox City, TX PMC for forage potential
‘Earl’ – released by the Knox City, TX PMC for forage potential
‘Kaw’ – Manhattan, KS
‘Niagara’ – Big Flats, NY
‘Rountree’ – Elsberry, MO
Big Bluestem – Maryland Biodiversity Project
Big Bluestem – Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center
Recommended for Wildlife by
Butterflies of Maryland: A biological summary and checklist by Maryland DNR
Jennifer Anderson, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database