Big Bluestem


I suppose that most travelers on our highways pay scant attention to the plants in the road ditches as they whiz by.  But there are some interesting plants out there occasionally if one takes the time to look.  The goldenrods and sunflowers, for example, are quite prominent and showy this time of year.  But there is another plant, a grass, that is also catching my attention.  It is Big bluestem, also known as turkey foot, or Andropogon gerardii to the botanists.

Big bluestem is a native, warm season, perennial tallgrass that grows from short rhizomes.  It grows to 3-7 feet tall or more.  It was green over much of the summer, but during fall the plant turns a rusty red or burgundy color, and the seed stalks culminate in 3-6 coarsely hairy spikes, 2-4 inches long, resembling, with a little imagination, a turkey foot.  It is in its fall glory now, even in road ditches.  And once you recognize the plant, I think you will be surprised at how frequently it can be observed in the road ditches as well as in native prairie.

Big bluestem was the dominant grass of the tallgrass prairie that once dominated the native prairies of the Midwest that have now been largely converted to corn and soybean fields.  Tallgrass prairie and big bluestem also dominated the Red River Valley prior to European settlement.  It seems hard to put into perspective the observations of early settlers when they wrote that the big bluestem grew tall enough to tickle the bellies of cattle and horses, impeded the visibility of a person on foot, cause a man stand on the horse’s back to scout the landscape ahead.

Big bluestem can still be found across North Dakota on native prairie, and it has also become established in many road ditches as well.    In both situations, it is most often observed lower on the landscape where soils are deeper and higher moisture conditions.

But if you are looking for big bluestem in pastures, please be aware that it may not always be seen heading out.  Big bluestem is often referred to as an “ice cream plant.”  Most grazing animals, cattle for example, relish it.  It is grass candy!  If I am in a lightly or moderately grazed pasture and spot a large area where it looks like it has been mowed with a grass catcher, it is almost always a stand dominated by big bluestem.

So be on the lookout for this interesting grass.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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