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TREES & plants

Big bluestem

Big blustem in fall color.

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.

This plant has some cultivated varieties. Go to list of cultivars.

Botanical name: 
Andropogon gerardii
All Common Names: 
Big bluestem, turkeyfoot
Family (English): 
Grass
Family (Botanic): 
Poaceae
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Grass, 
  • Perennial
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area, 
  • Illinois, 
  • North America
Landscape Uses: 
  • Container, 
  • Foundation, 
  • Massing, 
  • Mixed border, 
  • Patio/sidewalk, 
  • Specimen, 
  • Utility
Size Range: 
  • Large plant (more than 24 inches)
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 4, 
  • Zone 5 (Chicago), 
  • Zone 6, 
  • Zone 7, 
  • Zone 8, 
  • Zone 9
Soil Preference: 
  • Moist, well-drained soil
Season of Interest: 
  • Early winter, 
  • Mid winter, 
  • Late winter, 
  • Mid summer, 
  • Late summer, 
  • Early fall, 
  • Mid fall, 
  • Late fall
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Other, 
  • Red
Shape or Form: 
  • Upright
More Information: 

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 .

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.

Disease, pests, and problems

No serious problems.

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value: 5

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 (the reason for the common name, turkey foot).  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.

Cultivars and their differences 

“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'):  Leaves are gray-blue in summer and maroon in fall.

Andropogon gerardii or Big bluestem