A monarch of the native prairie grasses! Big Bluestem forms large clumps with blue-green to silvery-blue foliage that changes to attractive shades of bronze and reddish-copper with the first frost. In late August purplish flower spikes emerge producing distinctive three-parted seed heads. A warm-season grass. May also be known as Turkeyfoot, Popotillo Gigante.
Wisconsin Native: Yes
USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 4
Mature Height: 4-7 feet
Mature Spread: 2-2.5 feet
Growth Rate: Perennial
Growth Form: Upright bunchgrass
Light Requirements: Full Sun
Site Requirements: Tolerant of many soils except consistently wet sites
Flower: Purple flower spikes
Bloom Period: August-September
Fall Color: Bronze, Reddish Copper
Urban Approved: Yes
Fruit Notes: 3-part seed head
Waukesha County, WI
If you need a grass with height, this grass won’t disappoint. The grass can be used as a tall border or vertical accent in a garden. Its deep, extensive root system makes it well suited as a utility plant for erosion control and windbreaks. It also tolerates salt, pollution, acidic soil, and periodic flooding, making it an excellent choice for roadside plantings and other tough sites. Big Bluestem is also the main component of our native tallgrass prairies and is an essential plant for any tallgrass prairie restoration.
Big Bluestem is of great importance to birds as a source of nesting material. It provides cover to over 20 bird species, including the threatened Henslow’s Sparrow. The Grasshopper Sparrow, Sedge Wren, and Western Meadowlark are also common visitors to the plant. Big Bluestem is the larval host for the Dusted Skipper and Delaware Skipper moths. The high protein content makes it good forage for bison, cattle, and horses.
Big Bluestem should be cut back in late winter to make room for new growth. It can be left up over winter for ornamental interest.
Do not cut back or mow during the growing season. Repeated cutting can kill the plant.
From a landscape management perspective, Big Bluestem should be mowed, cut, or burned during late winter.
There are no major insect or disease problems. In sites with too much shade, fertilizer, or moisture, the plant can become top-heavy and flop. When this occurs, either the site must be ameliorated or the grass must be transplanted to a better location.
Big Bluestem is one of the Big Four species that characterize our native tallgrass prairies. Its other associates include Indiangrass, Switchgrass, and Little Bluestem. Big Bluestem is the dominant component in this environment. The best place to see this ecosystem is the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in northeast Illinois, the first tallgrass prairie preserve and the only one east of the Mississippi.
High in protein, it has evolved to tolerate seasonal browsing by the American Bison. However, cattle browsing is much more frequent and concentrated, which has reduced its range from pre-ranching levels.
Big Bluestem is also known by the common name ‘Turkeyfoot’, which comes from the seed head’s distinctive 3-part shape.
Destruction of the tallgrass prairies and the deep, extensive root systems was a contributing factor in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
As the main member of the Big Four, Big Bluestem will pair well with Indiangrass, Switchgrass, and Little Bluestem. For added color, mix with Tall Tickseed, Pale Purple Coneflower, and Prairie Blazing Star.