Little Grass from the Prairie

Little bluestem grasses
Little bluestems provide good habitats for wildlife. CAES horticulturist Carol Robacker (below, at left) and USDA scientist and CAES alumna Melanie Harrison partnered to research and develop three new varieties of little bluestem perennial grasses. Photos by Sharon Dowdy Cruse

Landscapers can soon add a bit of Georgia’s native prairie to their designs thanks to the creation of three new little bluestem perennial grasses released through a University of Georgia-U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) partnership.

Little bluestem grasses are native to North America and are a major component of the tallgrass prairie, the majority of which is located in the Midwest. The grasses typically produce green to blue-green foliage. With names that conjure up thoughts of the ‘70s, the new little bluestem varieties are much more colorful than their traditional parents. ‘Cinnamon Girl’ has a red-burgundy glow; ‘Seasons in the Sun’ has a lavender glow; and ‘Good Vibrations’ is a mix of colors — red-purple with green-yellow foliage.

The idea to breed the colorful grasses came from Melanie Harrison (Ph.D. – Horticulture, ’03), a USDA scientist. Harrison curates more than 500 different species of grasses and safely cold stores them in the USDA Plant Genetic Resources Conservation Unit facility on the UGA Griffin campus. Most of these grasses will never be grown in home landscapes, but their genes may be used to breed specific characteristics into new grass varieties.

Looking at little bluestems daily, Harrison noticed the colorful summer foliage and attractive form of the grasses and began to see them as ornamental.

“I noticed some of the bluestems had ornamental characteristics,” she said. “My job is to conserve close to 500 different species of grasses, so there’s a lot of variety. I thought they were pretty, but I’m not a plant breeder, so I asked Carol what she thought.”

Carol Robacker, a UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences horticulturist, is Harrison’s colleague at UGA-Griffin. She was also Harrison’s major professor when she was earning her doctoral degree in the college’s horticulture department.

Their 2006 conversation about little bluestems led to a research partnership that resulted in the new varieties.

Having bred numerous abelia and vitex varieties, Robacker knows that home gardeners and professional landscapers like to have a variety of plants to choose from, but they don’t always know how to use them.

“Little bluestem is growing in popularity, but people don’t know where to plant it,” she said. “It does well in mass plantings mixed with other plants. And it’s very attractive when the wind blows.”

Little bluestems are low maintenance and the new varieties are bred specifically for Georgia. The grasses retain their color in hot Georgia summers and go dormant in the winter. And, Robacker says, the color is “more intense in areas of north Georgia, like Blairsville.” After dieback, the grasses should be cut back in early spring.

“They are at their peak in May, June and July and then they provide some pretty fall color,” Robacker said.

“Bluestems are very peaceful and they make great habitats for wildlife,” Harrison said. “Birds use them for nesting and protection.”

The research team has applied for patents and now seeks a company for licensing.

By Sharon Dowdy Cruse