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Big Bluestem

Andropogon gerardii

Synonymous with the Midwest’s vast prairies of old, the grass big bluestem looks good in modern landscapes, too. Call on this grass to add year-round color and texture to dry, lean soil because it changes color seasonally and bears interesting forked seed heads. Plus, its tall stature makes it a great plant for creating a living screen or masking a view. Big bluestem beckons birds, insects, and other wildlife that mine it for food and shelter.

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Light:

Sun

Type:

Height:

3 to 8 feet

Width:

2 to 3 feet

Flower Color:

Foliage Color:

Special Features:

Zones:

4-9

Propagation

What to Plant With Big Bluestem

Pair big bluestem with other prairie favorites for an easy-care planting that erupts with color and wildlife-interest year-round. Great companions include purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, Joe Pye weed, and false sunflower. Big bluestem is also striking when planted alongside other ornamental grasses that thrive in prairie environments: little bluestem, switchgrass, prairie dropseed, tufted hairgrass, and sideoats grama.

Growing Big Bluestem

Big bluestem grows best in full sun and well-drained soil. Like many prairie grasses, it thrives in lean, dry soil and once established tolerates long periods of dry conditions. It tends to topple over in moist soil and/or soil that is rich in nutrients. Big bluestem self-seeds freely in optimal growing conditions.

Plant big bluestem in spring and water it well. Continue to water every couple of weeks during the first growing season to encourage a deep root system. Flowering stems, which are topped with seed heads that resemble turkey feet (hence the common name turkeyfoot), emerge in late summer to bring the height closer to 8 feet.

Big bluestem is a warm-season grass, which means that most of its growth occurs during the warm summer months. This grass displays attractive fall color and stands tall through winter with its seed heads moving in the wind. Cut it back in early spring before new growth begins. Don't get discouraged if other plants put up new shoots and big bluestem is still dormant. It will send out new growth as soon as the temperatures moderate.

New Types of Big Bluestem

Plant breeders are developing some new cultivars that take on brilliant fall color and some that mature to a smaller size than is typical for the species. Look for these unique grasses at garden centers that specialize in North American native plants.

More Varieties of Big Bluestem

Broomsedge bluestem

Andropogon glomeratus is an easy-to-grow species from North America that features fantastic copper fall color. It tolerates a range of soil types, from wet to dry. This fast spreader can be too aggressive for small gardens. Broomsedge bluestem grows 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Zones 5-8

Bushy bluestem

Andropogon glomeratus is a North American native grass with blue-green foliage in summer that turns coppery-red in autumn. It's prized for its fluffy flower stalks that crown the plant in fall. It grows 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Zones 4-10

Plant Big Bluestem With:

Coneflower
Purple coneflower is so easy to grow and attractive and draws so many birds and butterflies that you simply must grow it, if you have the room. Valued for its large sturdy daisylike flowers with dropping petals, this prairie native will spread easily in good soil and full sun. It is bothered by few pests or diseases. It's a great cut flower -- bring in armloads of it to brighten the house. And birds and butterflies love it. Allow it to spread so that you have at least a small stand of it. Let the flowers go to seed and the goldfinches will love you, coming to feast on the seeds daily. Butterflies and helpful bees also love purple coneflower.It used to be that rosy purple or white were the only choices in flower color. Recent hybrids have introduced yellow, orange, burgundy, cream, and shades in between.
Joe Pye weed
Joe Pye weed is a showstopper of a prairie native, producing huge, puffy flower heads in late summer. It prefers moist soils, but with its extensive root system, it also tolerates drought well. It is a large plant, growing 4 to 6 feet tall.Closely related, hardy ageratum is a spreading plant that grows to only 2 feet tall. Another relative, white snakeroot, reaches 4 to 5 feet tall. All are great for naturalistic or cottage plantings and for attracting butterflies.
False sunflower
False sunflowers are easily confused with perennial sunflowers, but they have the advantage of being more compact (less floppy) and blooming earlier so you can have more sunflowerlike flowers longer. Their brilliant yellow single, semidouble, or fully double flowers bloom over many weeks. They make excellent cut flowers. Tall varieties may require staking. Divide the plants every couple of years to ensure vigor.
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