Big Bluestem vs Little Bluestem: What’s the Difference?

Little Bluestem in a Field
© L.A. Faille/Shutterstock.com

Written by Jeremiah Wright

Published: October 14, 2022

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With such similar names, one might think that the big bluestem and little bluestem are nothing more than variations of a plant named bluestem. Well, there’s much more to these two species than their names imply!

For example, while they’re part of the same family of plants, they’re included in different genera, as you’ll see below. At the same time, differences in appearance can help you identify the two in the wild.

Without any further ado, let’s compare big bluestem vs. little bluestem and see how the two plant species differ!

Comparing Big Bluestem vs. Little Bluestem

Big bluestem and little bluestem are part of the same family of plants.
Big BluestemLittle Bluestem
FamilyPoaceaePoaceae
SubfamilyPanicoideaePanicoideae
GenusAndropogonSchizachyrium
Scientific nameAndropogon gerardiSchizachyrium scoparium
Native toEastern and central North AmericaNorth America
Preferred soil typeSand, clay, and loamSand and loam
Preferred moisture levelDry and moist, medium levelsDry, medium levels
Average height3 to 10 feet2 to 3 feet
Blooming timeAugust, September, OctoberAugust, September, October
Bloom colorYellow and redOrange, purple, red, and tan
Type of rootFibrousFibrous
Benefits in the gardenDrought tolerant, easy to maintain, deer resistantAdaptable, deer resistant
Sowing timeSpring and early summerSpring or fall

What Is the Big Bluestem?

Big bluestem is often referred to as turkeyfoot, bluejoint, or simply tall bluestem. Its scientific name is Andropogon gerardi, part of the Panicoideae family and the Andropogon genus. The species is native to eastern and central North America – found especially in the grassland and Great Plains regions of said areas.

Fulgenzio Vitman officially named the plant in 1792 after the person who had first described it, Louis Gerard.

What Is the Little Bluestem?

Little bluestem is often referred to as beard grass or, by its scientific name, Schizachyrium scoparium. As you can see, even if there’s only a one-word difference between its common name and big bluestem, the scientific name of little bluestem is entirely different. The species is part of the Panicoideae family and the Schizachyrium genus. It is native to the United States (except for Oregon, California, and Nevada), northern Mexico, and a small area north of the Canadian border with the U.S. Little bluestem specimens are commonly found in the Midwestern prairie regions.

The Key Differences Between Big Bluestem vs. Little Bluestem

The key differences between big bluestem and little bluestem are plant type, appearance, cultivation, and uses.

Now that we’ve got the botanical and scientific aspects out of the way, it’s time to explore some key differences between these two species. It is worth mentioning that little bluestem can be found in the tallgrass prairie alongside big bluestem, so it’s quite easy to mistake one for the other.

Big Bluestem vs. Little Bluestem: Plant Type

Little Bluestem in a Field

Little bluestem is a perennial bunchgrass plant.

©L.A. Faille/Shutterstock.com

Big bluestem is a perennial plant, which means it lives for more than two years. It is a bunchgrass plant, so it grows in tufts, clumps, or bunches and doesn’t form a lawn. Big bluestem roots feature tough rhizomes and rather deep roots – up to 10 feet.

Little bluestem is a perennial bunchgrass plant as well. It is much shorter than big bluestem, growing up to three feet during the growth process and up to five feet after it produces its flowering stalks – this happens in July.

Big Bluestem vs. Little Bluestem: Appearance

Big bluestem starts as a clump of weeds. As the plant matures, its base becomes purple or blue. It blooms during summer and starts its seeding process during fall. When it hits maturity, big bluestem produces its inflorescence, which has a raceme form (unbranched, with flowers along the axis). The plant produces up to six racemes arranged alternately along the stem’s top. 

While in bloom, the flowerhead of Andropogon gerardi features stalked spikelets. Many people say big bluestem racemes resemble a turkey’s foot. The flowerhead is a reddish color.

Little bluestem is known for its colored, soft blades that can be grayish-green or bluish-green. The plant features flowering stalks that provide the plant with a coppery or orange color, as well as hints of purple or red. Depending on the soil, little bluestem may have different colors. For example, sandy soil produces a redder plant during autumn and a bronze one during winter and early spring.

Big Bluestem vs. Little Bluestem: Cultivation

Big Bluestem

Big bluestem performs well in drought conditions.

©Doikanoy/Shutterstock.com

Contrary to popular belief, bunchgrass species like the ones described here are often planted in gardens. They feature certain ornamental qualities usually needed in a garden’s landscape.

Big bluestem performs well in drought conditions and is perfect as a tall accent plant in the garden. The downside is that it self-seeds regularly, with the potential of being a bit uncontrollable. If you like your garden manicured to the millimeter, so to speak, big bluestem might not be a good choice. On the other hand, the species isn’t picky and can grow in almost any soil type.

Little bluestem is sought-after in many gardens because of its attractive leaves, which are usually blueish-green. It should be planted in dry, sandy soils, not in clay or damp soils. The plant performs well in both rain and snow. After development, and once roots are fully established, little bluestem sits upright even during winter.

Big Bluestem vs. Little Bluestem: Uses

Big bluestem is rich in protein and grows even in drought conditions, making for exceptional cattle and horse forage. The plant can also be cut and used to produce hay when mature. 

On the other hand, little bluestem is often cultivated for visual reasons. It is considered by many to be the ideal backdrop for other prairie flowers. Like big bluestem, it is also used as forage for grazing animals. Moreover, little bluestem serves as a food source for birds.

The Big Four

It is worth mentioning that big bluestem and little bluestem are part of something called the Big Four. The term refers to the native grass species found in North America’s tallgrass prairie regions – alongside Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) and Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

Big bluestem is more common and taller than the other three plants, making it a favorite among cows. This, alongside its high-protein content, earned big bluestem the ice cream for cows title. On the other hand, little bluestem features fuzzy white seeds that are highly sought-after by birds during winter.

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About the Author

I hold seven years of professional experience in the content world, focusing on nature, and wildlife. Asides from writing, I enjoy surfing the internet and listening to music.

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