Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 28, 2011

Big Blue

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:28 am

It’s hard to get too excited about grass unless you are an aging hippie, a forage specialist, or a bored naturalist. In fact, once you take away the Hippie “grass” (and remove the disappointed Hipster from the conversation) you are left with a fairly small group of people willing to even talk about grass. Grasses don’t have the pizzazz that flowers and trees do. They are grass, after all. This is not to say they are unimportant or even un-interesting. No, this is to say that they are merely librarians up against pop stars. In fact, the planet could not support humans without grasses (or librarians). I am not here to preach, however. I only want to introduce you to one member of the gang and then move along.

The waning days of very late summer are a great time to meet up with one of the more impressive members of the grass clan called Big Bluestems.  They are hard to miss on account of their great height. At their peak this time of year, these towering plants can achieve heights in excess of 6-8 feet. They are one of the plants that gave rise to the “tall grass” designation for the Midwest prairies. These were the vast grasslands that once spread across the middle of the continent and fed the thundering herds of bison. Although the “vast” portions of both the prairies and the bison herds are long gone, the grasses still exist in eastern prairie pockets and many restoration projects incorporate them into the mix.  Big Bluestems are a crucial part of that mix.

The other “big” feature of the Big Blue is the part you cannot see without the aid of a backhoe or a back-mounted mini camera on woodchuck. The taproots extend as much as 10 feet down and the individual stems within any given area are interconnected via a rhizome system about 4 inches beneath the surface. Needless to say, this is a plant that sticks around once it is established (or re-established, as the case may be).

It is worth mentioning that apart from all the “big” things, the name of this plant also derives from the bluish cast of the stem (see above and detail here). This feature is evident on the portion of the stem around the swollen joints (a feature on aging Hippies as well, come to think of it). Even the flowering head is purplish blue (see above).

August is flowering time for the Big Bluestem. The plants produce multi-parted floral heads that appear like bird feet – giving rise to the common name of “Turkeyfoot grass”. There are typically three so-called “spiklets” on this floral head. Triggered into action by the shortening days of the month, bluestems dangle paired yellow anthers into the air and allow the wind to carry about their pollen (see below). Being tall, they easily capture whatever breeze happens by.

You know, there is more to tell, but I’d hate to pile on too much “grass talk” in one place.  I mean, Chippewa people once used the pliant stems for lashings and an Italian Monk with the impressive name of Fulgenzio Vitman was responsible for the plant’s classification, but let’s just leave this discussion where it sits and appreciate the Big Blue for what it is. It stands as a reminder that the grass is both greener and bluer on our side of the fence.


  1. Oh come on now! I love native grasses, and big bluestem is a fave. I’m also partial to little bluestem and Indian grass. Great, low-care perennials that hide the neighbors’ crap! 🙂

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — August 29, 2011 @ 12:39 am

  2. I was out today in our pocket prairie gushing over big bluestem and Indian grass, both of which are blooming and gorgeous. Grasses are vastly under-appreciated.

    Comment by Ellen — August 30, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

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