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Big Bluestem
Big Bluestem seed head.

Grasses can be very beautiful and make very interesting focal points for your landscape in the fall and winter months. Grasses are utilized as accent pieces in a landscape. Because they don't have large, brightly colored, wonderfully fragrant flowers, people use grasses for fall interest and for a different texture than the usual annuals and perennials that are often planted. Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is one of the more common grasses to use in a landscape setting because it is tall and has a very interesting seed head that lasts into the fall.

Big bluestem is a warm season grass that is planted as a clump grass, which means that it does not spread very far out from the main plant. Big bluestem can grow up to 8 feet tall and can grow a clump up to 36 inches across. In some places big bluestem is also called turkeyfoot due to the flower that looks like a turkey's foot. The flower is a grouping of two to four long strands of seeds that look like the claws on any bird's feet. The most interesting part of this particular grass, those seed heads will last into the fall giving great interest to an otherwise dull fall garden. Big bluestem flowers in July and the seeds will retain their shape throughout most of the winter.

Other than the standard Andropogon gerardii, you can get a couple of varieties to better suit your needs. There is a shorter variety that only gets about five to six feet tall, known as 'Pawnee'. 'Pawnee' has a nice red color for the fall, versus the tan for the standard big bluestem. There also is a hybrid known as 'Silver sunrise.' It is a little shorter and more compact than big bluestem and has blue tinted foliage with more flower heads on it. All three of these big bluestem varieties would be an asset to any acreage landscape.

Big bluestem is not only treasured by landscapers -wildlife and domestic animals love it as well. Wildlife use big bluestem as a habitat. Big bluestem also is known as an "ice cream grass" because wildlife and livestock relish this plant as a food source. They will eat all of the big bluestem before they eat any other type of grass because it tastes so good to them, the way people will always find room to eat ice cream. Big bluestem is a native grass of the prairie states and was one of the most abundant grasses on the tallgrass prairies of Nebraska.

Big bluestem prefers full sun but will grow in part shade. If you plant big bluestem in part shade, you may have problems with it falling over because there may be less vegetation surrounding it. Big bluestem does well in average to moist soils but will tolerate drier conditions. Pruning requirements of this plant are easy - leave it alone until later in the winter when it begins to lean over due to heavy snow.

Big bluestem
Big Bluestem in the landscape.
Nicole Stoner
Nicole Stoner
Extension Educator - Horticulture

As a professional horticulturist, Nicole's focus areas include trees, shrubs, lawns, gardens, and insects.

Gage County Extension
1115 West Scott
Beatrice, NE

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