Blue brings smiles to people’s faces. Why? Perhaps because the color blue makes them think of blue skies or swimming in a lake or the ocean or canoeing on a river. It is, therefore, a blessing when plants with blue foliage can be integrated into the landscape. I am a great fan of ornamental grasses and one of the best but not well known is Schizachyrium.
In today’s eco-conscious world, where everyone is trying to be water-wise, the need for drought tolerant plants is greater than ever. Although such plants prefer lean, well-drained soil, they can also be installed in average garden soil as long as the drainage is excellent. Little Bluestem, hardy to zone 3 and a native of American prairies and open woodlands, is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions from average to almost completely dry as well as the full range of ph from alkaline to acid. My experience has been that is happiest in very dry soil in full sun. In rich and moist soil or in shade, it tends to resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa although it is not nearly that tall.
Schizachyrium scoparium usually grows two to four feet tall but not as wide. The narrow, relatively stiff blades are steel blue in spring and early summer but in late summer and early fall, they develop reddish purple tints that soon evolve to a bronzy orange. Unlike most ornamental grasses that are beige during the winter, Schizachyrium scoparium is distinguished by its copper color that enlivens those dull gray days when the sun’s rays can’t penetrate the cloud cover. It remains undismayed by snow, perhaps because its slender stems allow the snowflakes to drift through them rather than weight them down.
Little Bluestem is a warm season grass; therefore, it does not bloom until late summer or early fall. The inflorescence is very fragile and somewhat inconspicuous until it dries at which point it becomes fluffy, silvery seedheads that are held well above the foliage. Watching the panicles dance in the wind is an entrancing experience.
The best known cultivars are ‘Blaze’ and ‘The Blues’. ‘Blaze’, a seed cultivar, is best known for its vivid red fall foliage, remaining a standout in winter when the leaves fade to deep pink while ‘The Blues’, a clonal cultivar, has strongly glaucous, light blue stems.
Like many grasses, Little Bluestem requires very little maintenance beyond an annual scything. It also provides food and shelter for wildlife. Since this species readily establishes along disturbed trail edges, it is highly recommended for use in landscaping greenways and restoring damaged wild recreation areas in addition to being a dynamic addition to a garden or landscape. The next time you design a sustainable garden, be sure to include Schizachyrium scoparium in your mental checklist.