Monday, October 19, 2009

My National Grass: Little Bluestem

I have not been very subtle about my annoyance with Karl. That's short for Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster': the accursed thing is everywhere. There are armies of Karl marching around practically every shopping center like storm troopers. He stands lonely sentinel in most every perennial border. He's usually planted in groups of three or four--stiff, upright, pointy tow headed jumbo matchsticks, turning straw yellow in midsummer (as if to remind you that summer is fleeting and life consists mostly of winter and death and destruction). I would not mind Karl if he would act like most kindly bores, and just hover a bit out of sight and let the belles rule the dance floor. The belle of grasses in this case is bluestem.

There could never be enough little bluestem: I wish I could wave a Harry Potter wand and turn all those blasted Karls into 'Blaze' or 'Blues' or just plain generic Schizachyrium scoparium. Throughout the summer they are reassuringly bluegreen or greenish mounds of verdure, weaving the garden together and coming to a marvellous crescendo of modest bloom in late summer. But as soon as the weather turns chilly, something astonishing occurs: little bluestems become fiery dusky rose bonfires that burst into fiery crimsons and reds and gorgeous deep pinks when backlit by the morning or evening sun.

No two look identical, and they vary pleasingly in height, shape and form. And everywhere they combine neatly with whatever you grow with them. Unlike Karl, they are drought tolerant as cacti. They thrive with lots of water, and grow in sun or shade. I declare once and for all, this is the grass of grasses: never so blatant with blossoms as some, but bringing a sort of ecstasy to the autumn garden that stands up in snow and wind and rain and blasting weather for weeks and months through the dreariest season. Did I mention that Little Bluestem grows across much of North America and thrives in almost any soil and exposure and that it is a winner?
The picture above was taken recently in Berthoud at the Northern Water Conservation Gardens. The one bat the top at the Pueblo Nature Center a few weeks ago. You can find dazzling examples of this plant almost anywhere this time of year. Why do people watch television when you can watch bluestem?

Is there a lesson in all this? The lesson is that you can never have too much of a good thing (Little Bluestem) and yes, you can have too much of a mediocre thing (Karl). Quit reading this blog immediately and go out and plant 100 new little bluestems RIGHT AWAY! I did so last week, and believe me, I am a better man for it!


  1. where blue stem plants grow...what is the weather like?

  2. Bluestem is found pretty much everywhere east of the Rockies to the East Coast in meadows, and southward across the Southwest to Southern California: it can grow pretty much anywhere in North America short of arctic tundra or deep shade or bogs (it needs soil that dries out now and again). It is the mainstay of prairie gardens. I just did ANOTHER Blog on bluestems for my work:


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