Identifying grasses is a notoriously difficult task, even for trained botanists and horticulturalists. Many appear very similar despite having very different needs and being from very different families. Broomsedge and Little Bluestem are a perfect example of two grasses native to the same areas and with fairly similar appearances. However, there are several very important differences between broomsedge and little bluestem that you should know about.
This article will delve into those differences, explaining each plant’s classification, description, as well as their uses and growing preferences. So if you’re ready to ID grasses like a pro (or at least learn a little about them), then look no further. Let’s begin!
|Plant Classification||Andropogon virginicus. At least one cultivar is commercially available.||Schizachyrium scoparium. It has several cultivars available.|
|Description||Mature height: 2-4 feet; Grows in dense clumps and produces seeds enclosed in a large spathe. Leaves are generally flat and the plant tends to have a lighter, golden color.||Mature height: 2-4 fee;t Grows in dense clumps of stems with flat bases and a unique mature coloration of reddish with a blue tint. Produces leaves that are folded at the bottom and seeds that are not enclosed in a spathe.|
|Uses||Used as an ornamental landscaping plant.||Used for landscaping and erosion control in poor soils.|
|Origin and Growing Preferences||Native to the Midwestern United States. Does well in most soils and requires very little water.||Native to prairies throughout Canada, USA, and Mexico. Does well in most soils and requires very little water.|
|Special Features and Fun Facts||Known for growing in disused fields with poor fertility.||Extremely resistant to deer foraging.|
The Key Differences Between Broomsedge and Little Bluestem
There are two main differences between broomsedge and little bluestem: mature coloration and seedheads. Because color can vary within each species’ cultivars, seedheads are the most important aspect in distinguishing these two grass species.
The seedheads of broomsedge are racemes, which are partly enclosed by a large, light yellow colored spathe generally at least as long as the raceme itself. A spathe is a reduced leaf or bract which covers the raceme. By contrast, little bluestem seed heads do not have this spathe; the seed heads are exposed and often have awns (bristles) which give the seeds a hairy appearance.
As previously stated, the other distinguishing difference between broomsedge and little bluestem is their mature coloration. When mature, broomsedge tends to appear lighter in color than little bluestem, and once dormant takes on a strong orangey-tan hue. Little bluestem, as its name suggests, has a blue tint to its overall reddish color. When it enters dormancy, it is significantly more reddish-brown than broomsedge.
Last, the stems and leaves of little bluestem are generally smaller and narrower than those of broomsedge.
Broomsedge vs. Little Bluestem: Classification
The main classification difference between broomsedge and little bluestem is their respective genuses.
Broomsedge belongs to the genus Andropogon, which contains over 100 species of grasses. Little bluestem used to also belong to that genus, but is now classified under the genus Schizachyrium, which it shares with over 50 other species. Both are very widespread genuses, with species native to most continents. They also share many similar characteristics, making them difficult to categorize and leading to species frequently swapping from one genus to another, as in little bluestem’s case. Alternative common names for broomsedge and little bluestem are whiskey grass and beard grass, respectively.
Both are classified as warm-season perennial bunchgrasses.
Broomsedge vs. Little Bluestem: Description
As they are both similar types of grasses, the physical, visual differences between broomsedge vs. little bluestem end up being quite subtle. Both broomsedge and little bluestem tend to reach 2-4ft. in height at maturity, and grow in dense clumps (hence their classification as bunchgrasses).
Broomsedge has larger leaves which tend to be flatter; they grow to about 10-15 inches long and are generally 1/8 inch wide. The ligule, or part of the leaf where the sheath meets the blade, is fringed on broomsedge and typically 1/16 inch long. It also features a flattened, basal leaf sheath that is either colorless or yellow. Meanwhile, the rest of the plant tends to start out as a pale, greenish-yellow before maturing to its final golden color.
By contrast, little bluestem leaves are often not as flat, and feature a fold along the midrib. They’re also smaller, reaching only 6-10 inches long and less than 1/4 inch in width. Little bluestem’s ligule is small and membranous; it sometimes resembles a ring of short hairs on some varieties of the species. Additionally, its sheath is flat, open, and frequently red or purplish at its base during the early stages of growth. Once the plant is mature, it takes on a reddish-brown hue with a blue tint that gives it its common name.
Broomsedge vs. Little Bluestem: Uses
Broomsedge has relatively little use. Its main function is as an ornamental plant. It’s a very common sight on golf courses and in residential landscaping because it requires very little water. Additionally, in autumn the plant develops an eye catching reddish orange color and remains vibrant throughout its winter dormancy. This makes broomsedge very popular for adding a pop of color to winter landscapes. As is hinted by its common name, this grass was also used in the production of homemade brooms in the United States.
By contrast, little bluestem has agricultural uses in addition to ornamental ones. It provides nesting material, cover, and foraging for small mammals and birds. Its interesting foliage means that, like broomsedge, little bluestem sees a lot of landscaping use as a low maintenance ornamental plant. However, without proper care and attention it can overrun areas.
Broomsedge vs. Little Bluestem: Origin and How to Grow
Both broomsedge and little bluestem are native to North American prairies, though broomsedge originated more in the Southeastern region of the United States, and little bluestem is naturally more widespread. Broomsedge can often be found growing as a weed in vacant lots and both recover swiftly from fires.
You can establish broomsedge by direct seeding or transplanting. Regardless of method, the best time to plant broomsedge is in spring, after frosts have ended. The seeds can be sown directly onto exposed soil, and will grow quickly, producing its own seeds at 2-3 years of age. Transplanting works better for small areas and high visibility sites.
If it isn’t properly maintained and controlled, broomsedge can easily become a weed, dominanting overgrazed pastures, where it is less palatable to grazing animals. You can avoid this by encouraging the growth of more desirable grasses and not allowing animals to overgraze these preferred plants.
Little bluestem shares many of broomsedge’s growing preferences, or rather, its lack thereof. They both boast quite low water requirements; and will grow in dry, well-drained soil; and full sun. They’re unfussy about the soils they’ll take to, and have a high drought tolerance.
That being said, neither tolerates wetlands or other irrigated or poorly drained areas. Another concern is space, especially for little bluestem. It reseeds easily and prolifically, so it can become a problem in smaller gardens. In larger areas, however, it can provide stunning visual dynamics when planted en masse.
Broomsedge vs. Little Bluestem: Special Features
Broomsedge remains erect through the winter months better than most other warm-season grasses native to Midwestern North America. It became invasive in Australia after spreading there by its use as packing material for bottles of American whiskey shipped there. This led to one of its colloquial names: whiskey grass.
Little bluestem is highly resistant to deer foraging. It also provides crucial habitat for several species of insect, including skippers and cobweb butterflies. Little bluestem is also the official state grass for both Kansas and Nebraska.
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- kstate, Available here: https://www.johnson.k-state.edu/docs/crops-livestock/native-grass-seed/Native%20Grass%20ID.pdf
- plants.usda, Available here: https://plants.usda.gov/DocumentLibrary/factsheet/pdf/fs_anvi2.pdf
- wildflower.org, Available here: https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=SCSC