little bluestem (broom beardgrass, wiregrass, bunchgrass, prairie beardgrass, broom
Schizachyrium scoparium (Michx.) Nash

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Little bluestem was one of the dominant grasses of the prairies that covered the pre-settlement Great Plains and is the official grass of the state of Nebraska. The native range of this grass extends from Canada to Mexico and includes most of the continental United States. Although typically a plant of Midwestern and Western dry prairies and plains, little bluestem can also be found to the east and south in old fields, rocky slopes and open woods. In Iowa, little bluestem occurs throughout the state on prairies, loess bluffs, and open, wooded slopes, as well as along roads and railroad rights-of-way, especially in drier sites. Cattle graze little bluestem when it is green, but it is too coarse for sheep and does not cure well for use as hay. The seeds of this grass are eaten by birds such as prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse.

Little bluestem is an attractive grass that can be used as an ornamental and is often included in small prairie plantings designed for landscaping purposes, as well as in larger scale prairie reconstructions. Its reddish stems with the characteristic whitish-blue waxy bloom are especially eye-catching. In Iowa, this species flowers from mid-July to late August or early September. The linear, spikelet-bearing branches (rames) of little bluestem are distinctive because there is only one per rame per stalk, as contrasted with two to several per stalk in the beard grasses (species of Andropogon).

Etymology: Schizachyrium comes from the Greek words schizo = to split, and achyron = chaff, referring to the divided lemma; scoparium comes from the Greek scopa = broom, and refers to the appearance of the tufts formed by little bluestem.

 

Plants perennial, usually tufted, sometimes with short rhizomes. Culms 35-120 cm tall, ca. 1.5-3 mm thick, solid. Leaves with the sheaths open, keeled, usually glabrous; ligules membranous, fringed, 1-1.5 (-2.2) mm long; blades 10-37 cm long, 1.5-6 mm wide, folded, glabrous to scabrous, sometimes hairy near the collar. Flowering heads 20-40 (-50) cm long, 1.5-5 cm wide, consisting of 3-12 (-18) stalked spikelet-bearing branches (rames); rames 2-5.5 (-6) cm long, 0.5-1.5 cm wide, linear, joints of the axis and margins of the pedicels hairy, breaking up into joints at maturity with each joint bearing a spikelet pair. Sessile spikelets (5-) 6-8.5 mm long, first glumes flattened, 2-keeled, clasping the convex second glume, lemmas delicate, awned, awns twisted, 4.5-13 mm long; pedicels 4-6.5 mm long, straight or curving out at maturity; pedicellate spikelets usually 2-5 mm long, sterile, usually without lemmas. Chromosome number 2n = 40.

 

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