We are well past the peak fall colors, but even if the big white blanket settles over the landscape we may still be able to see some of the grasses standing tall. A grass that generally catches my attention during fall and early winter is little bluestem.
Little bluestem is a native, warm season bunchgrass that grows to perhaps two feet tall. During the late summer into early winter it turns from a green, to a reddish-brown or orange. It is really quite showy.
Little bluestem can be found on the prairie across our region on a variety of soils. It is particularly noticeable on rolling to steep hillsides. It is also quite common on low prairie or meadows where the water table is high and the soil high in calcium carbonate.
Often times there is a noticeable band of little bluestem surrounding a wetland on these soils. Because of the high calcium in the soil this band is occasionally called “the bathtub ring.”
Seeing all that little bluestem in a pasture standing tall in late summer and into fall often leads the casual observer to conclude that cattle do not eat the plant. However, little bluestem is actually quite nutritious and palatable. But if it is allowed to mature, the stems become quite tough, and because it is a bunchgrass, there are often several of these tough mature stems in a bunch. No self respecting animal will stick their noses into that stuff. But livestock and big game will still graze the younger and succulent growth that is still accessible around the periphery of the bunch. Furthermore, if you were to look closely at these sites you would likely discover that for every bunch of little bluestem that has not been grazed, there are perhaps two or three heavily grazed plants.
Little bluestem is also increasingly being used as a landscaping plant. We are starting to bring our prairie plants into our urban landscapes. Varieties of little bluestem developed for our region include Badlands, Blaze, and Itasca. The plant is valued for its drought tolerance, fuzzy white seed heads at maturity, and reddish fall and winter color. If you are interested in using little bluestem or other prairie plants in landscaping, you may want to check with your local Natural Resource Conservation Service office or county extension agent.
You can see a photo of little bluestem on the Natural North Dakota website at prairiepublic.org.
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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