Conservation grass... 09/08/98 big bluestem

The native grass big bluestem can be identified by its three-pronged seed head. Plant breeders have developed two new cultivars you might want to try in your garden.


When gardeners talk about ornamental grasses, they usually are referring to varieties that did not originate in the United States. Some of the showier varieties are from China.

But there are several native grasses that you can add to your perennial border, said Greg Stack, a University of Illinois horticulture educator.

One example is big bluestem, a grass that has been found as a major component in nearly all of the tallgrass prairies in the United States.

Big bluestem has been available to home gardeners for many years. It is a warm-season, (emerging late in the spring), tall, (often 5 to 8 feet), clump-forming grass, Stack said.

In the fall, this grass takes on a yellowish-orange look with the seed heads having a slightly purple hue. The seed heads have three branches and, as a result, have been given the common name of “turkey foot” for their resemblance to the feet of the bird.

Plant breeders have been working to give the gardener choices beyond the standard species of bluestem and have come up with two new cultivars that offer a whole different look, he said.

The first is called ‘Rain Dance.’ This bluestem grows up to 6 feet high and forms a nice, loose open clump. The summer foliage is a deeper green than the bluestem species, and the leaves are tipped with a red coloration.

“In the fall, look for the plant to turn a dark maroon. It also produces red flowers on red stems. This creates a very dramatic look that signals fall in a big way,” Stack said.

The other is called ‘Red October.’ This bluestem grows 5 to 6 feet high and has deep green summer foliage. In the late summer, the foliage turns purple and then a very vivid scarlet in autumn, giving the garden some spectacular late-season color.

“Both of these grasses are winter-hardy to zone 3, and once established are very drought-tolerant,” he said. “Because of their size, they make good background plants or even specimen plants in mixed borders. They tend to be clump formers, which makes them good to use with other plants without the fear of them taking over or becoming invasive.”

Bluestem prefers a full-sun location, and if planted in a moist location, will be considerably taller than if it is planted in a dry spot.