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||Little Bluestem|
|Scientific name||Andropogon gerardi||Schizachyrium scoparium|
|Native to||Eastern and central North America||North America|
|Preferred soil type||Sand, clay, and loam||Sand and loam|
|Preferred moisture level||Dry and moist, medium levels||Dry, medium levels|
|Average height||3 to 10 feet||2 to 3 feet|
|Blooming time||August, September, October||August, September, October|
|Bloom color||Yellow and red||Orange, purple, red, and tan|
|Type of root||Fibrous||Fibrous|
|Benefits in the garden||Drought tolerant, easy to maintain, deer resistant||Adaptable, deer resistant|
|Sowing time||Spring and early summer||Spring 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
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.
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
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
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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- LADY BIRD JOHNSON WILDFLOWER CENTER, Available here: https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=SCSC
- LADY BIRD JOHNSON WILDFLOWER CENTER, Available here: https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ANGE
- Prairie Nursery, Available here: https://www.prairienursery.com/little-bluestem-schizachyrium-scoparium.html
- Prairie Nursery, Available here: https://www.prairienursery.com/big-bluestem-andropogon-gerardii.html