Content Detail

Big bluestem is a native grass and one of the main components of the tallgrass prairies that once covered Illinois. It offers interest in the landscape throughout the winter. 

This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

  • Family (English) Grass
  • Family (botanic) Poaceae
  • Tree or plant type Perennial, Grass
  • Native locale Chicago area, Illinois, North America
  • Size range Large plant (more than 24 inches)
  • Light exposure Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Hardiness zones Zone 4, Zone 5 (Northern Illinois), Zone 6 (City of Chicago), Zone 7, Zone 8, Zone 9
  • Soil preference Moist, well-drained soil
  • Tolerances Alkaline soil, clay soil, Dry sites, Occasional drought
  • Season of interest early winter, midwinter, late winter, midsummer, late summer, early fall, mid fall, late fall
  • Flower color and fragrance Red, Other
  • Shape or form Upright

Size and Form: 

Big bluestem is a tall, upright grass. Before flowering, it may grow 4 to 6 feet tall. Once in flower, it may be as tall as 8 feet .

Native geographic location and habitat: 

 C-Value: 5. This grass is native to Illinois and the Chicago region. This was the dominant grass of the prairies that once covered Illinois.

Leaf description: 

The alternate leaves are up to 2 feet long and 1/2 inch wide. In summer, the leaves are green, sometimes with a bluish cast or blue color at the nodes. In autumn, the leaves take on tones of bronze and red. During winter, the leaves are tan.

Flower description: 

Flowering occurs in late summer, usually August and September. The tiny, green-to-reddish flowers occur on three-branched structures, thus the common name, turkeyfoot. The branches of the flower cluster often have a purplish cast. The flowers are wind pollinated.

Fruit description: 

The small fruit (caryopsis or grains) form along the three-branched structures that held the flowers.

Plant Care: 

Big bluestem tolerates heat and drought well. While it is considered a clumping grass, it does actually spread slowly by rhizomes. It will also spread by seed. This is a warm season grass, so it’s most active growth occurs in summer. It will remain standing in winter and can act as winter interest. Since this grass remains attractive through winter, it should not be cut back until early spring, before new growth begins. At that time, it can be cut down to the ground.

These plants are cultivars of a species that is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research. Cultivars are plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding or via vegetative propagation from wild plants identified to have desirable traits.

Indian Warrior  (Andropogon gerardii ‘Indian Warrior’): 

This cultivar takes on red and purple tones starting in mid-summer and extending into fall.

Red October  (Andropogon gerardii ‘Red October’): 

Another cultivar with good color. Summer leaves are green tipped with red. In autumn, the color changes to burgundy.  After several frosts, the color becomes more scarlet.

Windwalker®  (Andropogon gerardii ‘PWIN01S’): 

The leaves of this grass are gray-blue in summer and maroon in fall.


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