Tried and true little bluestem outshines new plant introductions

Erin Schanen

        New plants will make their big debuts this spring, and articles and advertisements will have gardeners clamoring for the latest, if not the greatest. I’m a sucker for a new plant variety as much as the next gardener but only a few of them will be plants gardeners still love five years from now after they’ve seen how they perform in their own gardens.
    That’s where little bluestem come in. Schizachryum scoparium is the Perennials Plant Association’s Plant of the Year, but unlike the bright and shiny new plant varieties vying for our attention, it’s a tried and true performer.
    The PPA’s members—garden designers, plants people, garden writers and horticulturists—vote on the plant that will receive the annual distinction using criteria that means it has a much better chance of growing well in most gardens than most of the new varieties stealing the thunder.
    In order to receive the Plant of the Year designation, a plant needs to be suitable for a wide range of climatic conditions, be low maintenance, relatively pest and disease resistant, have multiple seasons of interest and be readily available.
    Little bluestem is native to most of the U.S. and was one of the dominant grasses of the tall grass prairies so it appreciates lean, well-drained soil and can flop in soil that’s too rich. But some shorter cultivars — and there are several exceptional ones — are less likely to flop.
    Sporting colors that range from silvery blue to purple and mahogany even before the wispy, light seedheads show up to the party, little bluestem offers not just great color but also excellent structure.
    It works well grown with other native plants, but it fits in just as well with other perennial plantings, adding in texture and movement to full sun areas that could use a little loosening up.
    Two cultivars in particular are lauded for their resistance to flopping.
    ‘Standing Ovation’ grows to about 3 feet tall and 4 feet tall in flower. It sports deep purples mixed in with blue-gray foliage that looks particularly stunning when backlight by a golden hour sun.
    ‘Jazz’ is another short introduction by Illinois breeder Brent Horvath with a particularly blue hue as new foliage emerges. It withstands rich soil and even irrigation without looking worse for wear.
    ‘The Blues’ is a popular cultivar that is similar in color but taller than ‘Jazz.’
    For as good as little bluestems looks in spring as bright new foliage emerges and summer when a rainbow of foliage colors develops, it is probably at its best in fall, when seedheads glimmer in the sun, and winter, when it holds just enough snow to add great winter interest. If you’re willing to give up the winter interest, it can be cut for fall arrangements.
    By late winter it will probably collapse, but an early spring cutback to the ground before new foliage pushes up is all this grass asks for.
    And though it may not be shiny and new, you can’t ask for much more than that from a plant.



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