Master Gardener: Little Bluestem is the ‘Perennial Plant of the Year’ | Lifestyles

June is a great time of year to add new perennials to your garden, which may be why the Perennial Plant Association has designated it as Perennial Gardening Month.

Perennial plants come back year after year, unlike annuals that need to be replaced. They tend to bloom for a certain period of time and not all season like annuals can.

The PPA also highlights a specific perennial each year.

This years’ Perennial Plant of the Year is Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) grass and its assorted cultivars. A native prairie grass, little bluestem was one of the dominant grasses of the extensive tallgrass prairie.

Little bluestem gets its name from the lavender-bluish color of the stems bases in the spring. The fine-textured foliage forms dense mounds 18 to 24 inches wide. Flowering stems may reach 3 to 5 feet long by September.

The 3 inch-long flower heads appear in August on branched stems. They range in color from blue to silvery gold to white.

The flowers have long hairs which give them a feathery look. A warm season bunchgrass, it has striking reddish-tan color in fall which extends into winter.

Little bluestem does best when grown in average, dry to medium moisture, well-drained soil in full sun. It does tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, including clay soils and poor soils.

Once established it has good drought resistance and can tolerate heat and humidity. It is also considered to be deer resistant, tolerant of being grown near black walnut trees and air pollution tolerant.

Little bluestem should be planted in full sun, so the plant doesn’t flop over later in the season. It can be cut to the ground in late winter to early spring to promote new growth. Do not mulch the crown of this plant.

One problem with little bluestem in the garden setting is that the plants are known for “lodging,” which means falling over. They have an upright form, but the fine texture of the leaves and the open habit makes them susceptible.

In a prairie they have neighboring plants to help them stay upright.

To help combat lodging grow in full sun. In fertile soils they will grow taller and be more prone to falling over.

Plants will be shorter on less fertile sites. Watering and over fertilizing lead to lodging.

This is a good low maintenance grass for sunbaked areas. It can also be used in the garden for borders, rain gardens, cottage gardens, rock gardens, meadows, or prairie gardens.

Little bluestem can be a useful plant to transition from a formal garden to a more natural area. It probably looks best when planted enmasse.

Spring is the best time to plant and divide grasses. This allows them the whole season for good root development.

If planting and dividing are done in the fall, they may not survive the winter.

Little bluestem is also valuable to wildlife. It provides year-round cover for birds and small mammals.

It is the host plant of various skipper butterfly caterpillars and the Common Wood-Nymph (Cercyonis pegala) butterfly caterpillar. The seeds are food for songbirds and small mammals during the winter.

There are many cultivars available, so it can be difficult to find the straight species.

Depending on the cultivar, the foliage can be shades of blue and green. Some may even be silvery or have pinkish purple striations.

“The Blues” is likely the most offered little bluestem cultivar. It has cool, deep blue-green leaves in summer.

The foliage changes to a rich dusky purple and burgundy in fall, and then to a deep gold for winter. Clumps grow 30 to 36 inches tall and 18 inches wide.

“Standing Ovation” was chosen for its blue foliage, reddish fall color and strong upright growth habit. The foliage features blue leaf blades with red tips.

The leaves are shades of maroon and red in the fall, with good retention of the colors late in the season. It stands up well to wind, rain, and snow.

“Standing Ovation” was discovered in 2003 as a naturally occurring mutation in Pennsylvania. While its parentage is unknown, “The Blues” is a likely parent.

“Blaze” was selected by Nebraska agronomists for its use as a forage grass in 1967, but it has ornamental value too.

A strong grower, “Blaze” has blue green summer foliage. It is prized for its vivid red fall foliage that fades to deep pink for winter.

It grows well in many soil types. The clumps grow about 3 feet high and 15 inches wide.

“Twilight Zone” is known for its midsummer iridescent, silvery mauve-purple foliage.

Come fall, bright purple highlights appear on the flower stems. It has an upright columnar shape, growing to about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide.

“Blue Heaven” was found in a field of little bluestem seedlings at the University of Minnesota. Its taller, more upright habit does not flop like the species.

The foliage color is a bright steel blue with iridescent purple highlights in summer and copper leaf tips in the fall. Glossy purple panicles appear with fluffy tan seeds late summer through early fall.

Whenever you are buying a new plant, check the plant tags to make sure its growing requirements match your site.

Every gardener’s mantra should be “the right plant in the right place.” This will help you be successful in future plantings.

Have a gardening question?

Master Gardener volunteers are normally in the office 10 am to noon weekdays. You can stop in at the CCE office at 420 E. Main St., Batavia, call (585) 343-3040, ext. 127, or e-mail geneseemg@hotmail.com.

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