Learn about the bluestems species in Kansas
There are several species in Kansas referred to as “bluestems”. Two of our native bluestems, big bluestem [Andropogon gerardii Vitman] and little bluestem [Schizachyrium scoparium (Michx.) Nash] occur throughout Kansas and are important constituents in the mid- and tallgrass prairies of central and eastern Kansas. Sand bluestem [Andropogon hallii Hack.] is found on sandy soils in Kansas. A less widely distributed species is splitbeard bluestem [Andropogon ternarius Michx.] found in a few counties in southeast Kansas. Another species found throughout Kansas is silver bluestem [Bothriochloa laguroides (DC.) Herter]. Broomsedge bluestem [Andropogon virginicus L.] is found primarily in eastern Kansas.
Two introduced species referred to as Old World Bluestems are Caucasian bluestem [Bothriochloa bladhii (Retz.) S.T. Blake] and yellow bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum (L.) Keng]. Old World Bluestem has been found in nearly every county in Kansas.
Big bluestem is a native, perennial, warm-season grass. It can grow up to 6-8 feet and has short, scaly rhizomes. In a vegetative stage, big bluestem can be identified by the fuzzy hairs located on the lower sheath and leaf blades. Seed heads typically have 3 racemes that appear like a “turkey foot”. Plants are leafy at the base and are very palatable to livestock (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Big bluestem
Sand bluestem is a native, perennial, warm-season grass. It resembles big bluestem, but the stems are bluish in color. Sand bluestem produces long creeping rhizomes and grows taller than 6 feet. The seed head has 2-7 racemes (Figure 2). The grazing value of sand bluestem is good to excellent.
Figure 2. Sand bluestem
Little bluestem is a native, perennial, warm-season bunchgrass. Stem bases are flat and the vegetation turns reddish-brown when mature. Plants are 2-4 feet tall and will grow on a wide range of soils including well-drained sands. The seed heads have small fuzzy seeds with a twisted awn (Figure 3). It has fair-to-good forage value, especially in the early-season before stem elongation. Fun fact: Little bluestem is the official state grass of Kansas.
Figure 3. Little bluestem
Splitbeard bluestem is a native, perennial, warm-season bunchgrass that grows 2-4 feet in height (Figure 4). The species resembles little bluestem but has silvery seed heads that open widely at maturity. Splitbeard bluestem is usually ignored by cattle, but may be grazed in early spring.
Figure 4. Splitbeard bluestem
Silver bluestem is a native, perennial, bunchgrass (Figure 5). It grows to a height of 1.5 to 3.5 feet. The stems are bent from one node to the next. The nodes appear to be swollen and white in color. The silvery seed heads are borne well above the foliage. Silver bluestem occurs on disturbed sites such as along roadsides and increases in overgrazed areas. Silver bluestem is generally considered undesirable and is grazed only in early stages of growth.
Figure 5. Silver bluestem
Broomsedge bluestem is a native, warm-season, perennial bunchgrass that grows up to 4 feet tall. The stem bases are flat and may or may not have hair. The orange-brown or straw-colored foliage help distinguish broomsedge (Figure 6). The seed heads are partially enclosed by large inflated sheaths. Broomsedge grows well on old fields that are eroded and low in fertility. It is seldom eaten by livestock.
Figure 6. Broomsedge bluestem
Caucasian bluestem is an introduced, perennial, warm-season bunchgrass. The species was introduced from Australia and southern Asia. It grows to a height of 2 to 3 feet. Leaves and sheaths usually lack hairs, but a few hairs occur at the leaf collar. Stems are grooved on one side. The seed heads are 2.5 to 6 inches long, much branched, and purplish in color (Figure 7). Caucasian bluestem will be grazed during vegetative growth, but is used little by livestock when animals are given a choice.
Figure 7. Caucasian bluestem
Yellow bluestem is an introduced, perennial, warm-season bunchgrass. Other common names include Turkestan bluestem and King Ranch bluestem. Yellow bluestem originates from northern Africa, Eurasian and the Mediterranean. It reaches about 3 feet in height. The leaves and sheaths usually have hairs. The vegetation resembles Caucasian bluestem. The stems can be decumbent and bent and conspicuously yellow in color (Figure 8). The seed head consists of 4 to 12 finger-like branches. Like Caucasian bluestem, yellow bluestems are consumed little by livestock if given a choice.
Figure 8. Yellow bluestem
The bluestems in Kansas are not all alike. Some of our native species, such as big, little, and sand bluestem are palatable to grazing animals. Other species such as broomsedge bluestem and the Old World Bluestems can be invasive and less desirable for grazing.
Haddock, Mike. 1997-2019. Kansas Wildflowers & Grasses. http://www.kswildflowers.org.
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USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 115.
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USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 118.
USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Hitchcock, A.S. (rev. A. Chase). 1950. Manual of the grasses of the United States. USDA Miscellaneous Publication No. 200. Washington, DC.
Walt Fick, Rangeland Management Specialist