This time of year, along the highway in full sun we see a tan upright grass with thick feathery tops. When other vegetation is growing, we rarely notice it. Until seed heads develop, this grass is easily ignored.
It’s called bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus) and it’s one of the native warm-season grasses that grows around here. In fact, it grows all over the eastern US. It’s even common in the southwestern states. Other common names are bushy beardgrass, lowland broomsedge and bushy broom grass.
Bushy bluestem is a bunch-type grass that forms upright clumps from two to six feet tall. Summer foliage is a blue-green color, while persistent upright stalks are copper colored in winter.
Plants are quite pest resistant, and few diseases or insects attack them. Bushy bluestem also tolerates air pollution well and grows in nearly any soil pH range.
Economically, it has no major value. As a forage grass, its nutritive value and palatability are low. It’s important from a conservation standpoint in that it can grow in wet places where many plants struggle. Most of its close relatives grow better on drier sites.
Wildlife, especially birds, use it for cover and to make nests. Songbirds eat the seeds in the late fall and winter. It occasionally becomes food for deer when snow covers the ground, but it’s not one of their preferred foods.
Bushy bluestem is a great choice for naturalizing in wet areas. It requires very little care and it’s not necessary to add additional fertilizer. Mowing bushy bluestem makes it grow thicker, but it detracts from the upright ornamental effect.
While this prairie grass is a plant that often grows in waste places, I think it has a place in the ornamental landscape. Its upright stiff growth habit makes an interesting contrast to most flowerbed residents. The flower stalks are showy throughout winter until spring, far more than those of broomsedge and other Andropogon species.
This plant is not even remotely approaching threatened status, so I would have few reservations transplanting it from the wild. Proper permission from the landowner would be my biggest concern. It is a heavy seed producer, so if anything, harvesting some from the wild might reduce its natural spreading.
The stiff flower stalks make great filler material to stretch out dried or fresh cut flower arrangements. Floral paint adheres well too. I wouldn’t think it would be difficult to get permission to cut some stems along rural roadsides.
This grass also has another use. The dry stems and flowerheads make great tinder for starting campfires. In areas where snow is more prevalent, these clumps emerge above the white stuff and tinder can be collected with ease. Starting fires with this material is easy, even for amateurs. When hiking or enjoying any outdoor winter activity, a good fire can make the experience safer and more pleasurable.
This grass has no food foraging value. Modern use as a medicinal herb is limited, too. At one time native Americans made an infusion from the roots to treat poison ivy, but it’s not used anymore to any degree.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.