Big Bluestem along 3 Mile Road

Big Bluestem along 3 Mile Road


I suspect that many drivers traveling Michigan’s roads this autumn are more attracted by the color of the changing leaves than the weeds along the roadside. Recognition of those ‘weeds,’ however, can change that viewpoint. For most of the spring and summer a grass is just a grass, a clump of green blades, mostly needing mowing. Come late August, however, something amazing happens. The native grasses Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem bloom and embellish many of Michigan’s roadsides with their burnished glory. It may look like dead brown grass to many, but closer study show an amazing array of color from the yellow to yellow orange flames of basal grass leaves to the ripening splendor of the slender reddish, glowing amber or pink stalks.
Big Bluestem

Big Bluestem in September


Once, I too, thought of these grasses as weeds, and then I learned a little more about these two native grasses. Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii) once covered the prairies from the Ohio River to the foothills of the Rockies. It was the predominant prairie grass covering much of the Mid-West. By late summer the seed stalks often rose to seven feet, or in some locals, even ten feet (those in my fields grow to six feet!). The name came from the lavender-gray seed heads, the slender finger-like shapes of which gives Big Blue another common name, Turkeyfoot. These fragile looking whips play with the wind. There are red splotches on the stem, so the wind brushes the stems the red and green on the stems seem to blur into blue-gray. For our early settlers it must have looked like another ocean when late summer winds propelled the tall grasses into waves of motion that formed the grass sea.

Big Bluestem and Little Bluestem Crowned by Maple in October


Sometimes I imagine the vast herds of buffalo and antelope living on land covered by this grass, or traveling in a wagon where the grass along the trail towers over me. It must have been a remarkable sight. Now Big Bluestem is known for its superior qualities as forage for cattle, horses, and, to the hunter’s joy, the Michigan white-tail deer. As the settler’s plowed under the prairie grasses, something else happened; they destroyed the very deep roots of Big Bluestem which held the soil in place. When drought hit the prairie, the roots that had acted like anchors for soil and moisture were gone, and those crops planted in place of the grasses, couldn’t hold the soil. The topsoil blew away in great black winds that resulted in the Dust Bowl, affecting hundreds of thousands of acres of land. John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, depicts the sorrow from this ecological calamity.
Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem


Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), often grows next to Big Bluestem along the roadside. Even from the car, the difference can be seen. Little Bluestem is shorter than Big Bluestem, usually reaching only three feet in height. While this grass’s leaves are a highly prized for their blue-green summer color, in fall they turn pinkish-tan to brilliant orange with white seeds running up the stem like tufts of a hair. This feature gives the grass its other common name of Beard Grass. Little Bluestem lacks the great stature of Big Bluestem, but it has a fragile beauty to distinguish it. The frosted pink or pronounced reddish-tan stalks of Little Bluestem dress an autumn field in rare beauty.
A field of Little Bluestem

A field of Little Bluestem


Another of the predominate prairie grasses, Little Bluestem also exists in greatly reduced circumstances, although the pink-red-orange fall coloring has piqued the interest of landscapers and horticulturists which has established it as a ‘garden plant.’ A few plants have even received cultivar names for certain superior qualities, usually summer or autumn color, and are now are available in nurseries. For ranchers and farmers, though, like Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem has great nutritional value for livestock. Maybe they both can make a comeback.
A Michigan Autumn with Little Bluestem

A Michigan Autumn with Little Bluestem


Now that I know and can identify Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem, I look for them in the fall. They have become as important an indicator of the season as the red-orange sugar maple. The maple adorns the sky, the bluegrasses gild the ground. It is most unfortunate that so many counties and townships mow them down at the peak of their glory.

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