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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Wetland Plants and Plant Communities of Minnesota and Wisconsin


(Andropogon gerardii Vitman)

Big bluestem

GRASS FAMILY (Gramineae or Poaceae)


FIELD CHARACTERISTICS: A perennial, sod-forming grass 1-3 m. high with stout stems. Leaf blades are 5-10 mm. wide. The inflorescence contains 2-10 finger-like racemes with two types of spikelets: perfect, stalkless spikelets and staminate, stalked spikelets. Both types of spikelets resemble each other in size and shape, and occur in pairs at the joints of the principal axis. The twisted, fertile spikelet awn is 8-15 mm. long. The principal axis and flower stalk joints are equal. The leaves and stems turn bright yellow, red, orange, or purple in the fall, and some color persists inside the stem leaf sheaths into the spring.

Big bluestem
Figure 30
Illustration is from Hitchcock (1950).

ECOLOGICAL NOTES: Although big bluestem is a dominant grass of mesic prairies, it often occurs in wet to wet-mesic prairies. It may also occur in calcareous fens. Another common name is turkey foot, which the inflorescence can resemble.

SOURCE: Fassett (1951); Gleason and Cronquist (1991); and Swink and Wilhelm (1994).

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