DIXON – Little bluestem Schizachryrium scoparium is the most common native prairie grass in the U.S. It grows in 46 of our 50 states. The four Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada can’t lay claim to any little blue.
Little blue has a root system that is hard to believe; while the above-ground grass mass may be 24 to 48 inches in height, the roots tangle and tussle through the rich prairie soil to a depth of 8 feet. The name comes from the slight bluish tinge to the green grass clumps in late spring and early summer. By autumn, the grass explodes with a rust and copper hue that sets the prairie on fire.
Little bluestem always was on the dinner menu of the vast herds of bison that once roamed the U.S. And today, little blue is a favored grass of cattle because the nutrient-rich forage causes good weight gain in commercial cattle herds. Little blue begins growth in early April and provides nutritious grazing during the growing season; plus it makes good winter grazing. As with any grass, continual over-grazing causes death of the grass clump. The key to successful bison and cattle grazing is rotation. Bison rotated naturally; the seasons and the temperatures and the amount of rainfall all were factors in the movements of the great herds.
Little blue also is used for hay production in some states. In early days, the hay was scythed by hand or by horse-drawn mowers. It was stacked loose in fragrant mows. Today giant machines cut and roll huge, round bales; a good stand of little blue may produce 2 tons of hay per acre. If you are raising little bluestem for seed production and sale, you may harvest 200 pounds or more of seed per acre in a year with adequate rainfall.
But here in Lee County, little blue is more of a delight than a dinner item. The clumping form of growth provides wonderful habitat for prairie creatures like ornate box turtles, 6-lined race runners, and ground-nesting birds. Clumps themselves are great hiding places, and the open soil between clumps is both a dust-bathing spot and a place to forage for insects.
Want to wander through the little blue? Green River State Wildlife Area, 16 miles southwest of Dixon, is a 2,300-plus-acre wonderland. The sand hills are perfect habitat for little blue and a myriad of other native prairie species, both plant and animal.
Go to dixonparkdis trict.com for information on park district activities.