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2022 Perennial Plant of the Year: Little Bluestem

For the 2022 Perennial Plant of the Year, the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) is highlighting a species and call out different cultivars that are appropriate for various regions. The honored plant this year is little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

Little bluestem (cultivar Little Arrow) is flanked by hardy geranium and oakleaf hydrangeas in a bed at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Little bluestem (cultivar Little Arrow) is flanked by hardy geranium and oakleaf hydrangeas in a bed at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

As a whole, little bluestem is a handsome, colorful and compact North American tallgrass. It has a dense and upright carriage that recommends it to tight spaces. The foilage tends to show bluish tints from spring through summer and turn orange in autumn, concurrent with flowering. The seed heads are fluffy and white, persisting into fall and winter to lend interest and feed ground-foraging birds.

Little bluestem is a warm-season grass, meaning it will be slow to start growth in the spring, but it will sail through the heat of summer and contribute great fall interest. Grow in full sun and well-drained, poor to average soil. It tolerates dry sites. Cut the foliage and leftover flower stalks to the ground in late winter or early spring. It may self-sow, but it is a bunching grass that spreads very slowly by its roots, making it among the least aggressive of the ornamental grasses. It’s hardy in USDA Zones 3–9.

Members and leaders within PPA recommended several cultivars of little bluestem, recognizing the tendency of the species and some selections to flop with shade or rich, moist soil. To avoid this problem, they recommend ‘Standing Ovation’ for all regions, thanks to its color and its stalwart upright habit even in irrigated, fertile garden soil. ‘The Blues’ is recommended for the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and West, as well as the South, although flopping can be a problem there if it doesn’t get full sun and dry, lean soil. ‘Jazz’ was recommended for the Mid-Atlantic and the Central States, its sturdy stems noted to remain upright throughout the winter in trials at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The wide-growing ‘Carousel’ offers similar strength in Great Lakes winters.

Image credit: cultivar413/CC BY 2.0