The Original Bluegrass

Few groups of plants are more iconic to the prairies of North America than the warm season bunch grasses. The idea of amber waves of grain was present on this continent long before the agricultural revolution hit. Two of the most hardy and iconic species of grass native to eastern North America are the bluestems. Though they aren’t in the same genus, big blustem (Andropogon gerardiihttp://bit.ly/1oEtLny) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scopariumhttp://bit.ly/1nJyAHa) are often grouped together by the blueish hue their leaves take on during the growing season. Both are warm season grasses meaning that when all other plants are taking a hit from the often insufferable heat and dryness that comes with the dog days of summer, the bluestems are just starting to grow. Both are what we call C4 grasses. Without going into too much detail, this basically means that while other plants need to open the pores in the leaves during the day to take in CO2, the bluestems wait until night when it is cooler and evaporation isn’t as prominent. They take up and store CO2 all night so that this way they can keep them closed all day while the process the CO2 collected the night before. Being bunch grasses, the bluestems respond well to fire. They are also quite immune to browsing pressure as their growth centers are near the base of the plant instead of at the top. Either way, bundles of big and little bluestem are an impressive sight to see, especially during the hottest parts of the summer. In fall and winter, their foliage takes on a pleasing red hue. Flocks of overwintering birds will descend upon a stand of bluestem to feed on the seeds. All in all, you can’t go wrong with the bluestems!

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