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SPECIES: Schizachyrium scoparium


Steinberg, Peter D. 2002. Schizachyrium scoparium. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: /database/feis/plants/graminoid/schsco/all.html [].


Andropogon scoparius Michx.[142]


little bluestem 
broom bluestem 
broom beardgrass 
creeping bluestem 

The currently accepted scientific name of little bluestem is Schizachyrium scoparium (Michx.) Nash. (Poaceae). Three currently recognized varieties are listed below [160]:

Schizachyrium scoparium var. scoparium
Schizachyrium scoparium var. stoloniferum (Nash) J. Wipff 
Schizachyrium scoparium var. divergens (Hack.) Gould 

Schizachyrium scoparium var. stoloniferum is called creeping bluestem, and S. s. var. divergens is referred to as pinehill bluestem. Frequent changes in taxonomy have resulted in a number of synonyms and taxa that are no longer recognized. When little bluestem was included in the Andropogon genus, many varieties were recognized. After its classification in the Schizachyrium genus, many of the varieties continued being recognized. There was difficulty in discerning varieties because of clinal variation and, subsequently, many varieties were reorganized into the 3 currently recognized varieties [127,160]. Additionally, some varieties became recognized as separate species.

Subspecies and varieties now included in S. s. var. scoparium include A. scoparium var. ducis Fern & Grisc., A. s. var. frequens F.T. Hubbard, A. s. var. neomexicanus (Nash) A.S. Hitchc. (later S. s. var. neomexicanum (Nash) Gould), A. s. var. polycladus Scribn. & Ball (later S. s. var. polycladum (Scribn. & Ball) C.F. Reed), A. s. var. septentrionalis Fern & Grisc., and S. praematurum (Fern.) C.F. Reed. A. scoparium var. divergens Hack., A. s. var. virilis Shinners (later S. s. var. virile (Shinners) Gould), and S. s. ssp. divergens (Hack.) Gould are now classified as S. s. var. divergens (Hack.) Gould. A. s. var. littoralis (Nash) Hitchc. (later S. s. ssp. littorale (Nash) Gandhi & Smeins) has been classified as a separate species, dune bluestem (S. littorale (Nash) Bickn.) [160]. 


No special status

No entry


SPECIES: Schizachyrium scoparium
Little bluestem's range extends from Maine and Nova Scotia south to Florida, west to Arizona, north to Montana and Alberta and east across most of southern Canada. It also grows in much of central Mexico [273]. Little bluestem is now found in every one of the lower 48 states except Nevada [160]. It is most prominent in the Great Plains and in open canopy areas in the eastern United States. Historically little bluestem did not grow in California, Idaho, Washington, or British Colombia but it has become naturalized on disturbed sites in this region [273]. 

The typical variety (S. s. var. scoparium) grows in all states except Alaska and Nevada; it is rare in British Columbia but present in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Pinehill bluestem (S. s. var. divergens) currently grows in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Creeping bluestem (S. s. var. stoloniferum) is found in Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, and North Carolina; it is currently rare in Alabama and Georgia [160].

FRES10 White-red-jack pine
FRES11 Spruce-fir
FRES12 Longleaf-slash pine
FRES13 Loblolly-shortleaf pine
FRES14 Oak-pine
FRES15 Oak-hickory
FRES16 Oak-gum-cypress
FRES17 Elm-ash-cottonwood
FRES18 Maple-beech-birch
FRES19 Aspen-birch
FRES20 Douglas-fir
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES28 Western hardwoods
FRES29 Sagebrush
FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES31 Shinnery
FRES32 Texas savanna
FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe
FRES35 Pinyon-juniper
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES39 Prairie
FRES40 Desert grasslands
FRES41 Wet grasslands


4 Sierra Mountains
5 Columbia Plateau
6 Upper Basin and Range
7 Lower Basin and Range
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
15 Black Hills Uplift
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands

K005 Mixed conifer forest
K010 Ponderosa shrub forest
K011 Western ponderosa forest
K012 Douglas-fir forest
K016 Eastern ponderosa forest
K017 Black Hills pine forest
K018 Pine-Douglas-fir forest
K019 Arizona pine forest
K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland
K024 Juniper steppe woodland
K027 Mesquite bosques
K031 Oak-juniper woodland
K032 Transition between K031 and K037
K037 Mountain-mahogany-oak scrub
K053 Grama-galleta steppe
K054 Grama-tobosa prairie
K055 Sagebrush steppe
K057 Galleta-threeawn shrubsteppe
K058 Grama-tobosa shrubsteppe
K060 Mesquite savanna
K061 Mesquite-acacia savanna
K062 Mesquite-live oak savanna
K063 Foothills prairie
K064 Grama-needlegrass-wheatgrass
K065 Grama-buffalo grass
K066 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
K067 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
K068 Wheatgrass-grama-buffalo grass
K069 Bluestem-grama prairie
K070 Sandsage-bluestem prairie
K071 Shinnery
K072 Sea oats prairie
K073 Northern cordgrass prairie
K074 Bluestem prairie
K075 Nebraska Sandhills prairie
K076 Blackland prairie
K077 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie
K079 Palmetto prairie
K081 Oak savanna
K082 Mosaic of K074 and K100
K083 Cedar glades
K084 Cross Timbers
K085 Mesquite-buffalo grass
K086 Juniper-oak savanna
K087 Mesquite-oak savanna
K088 Fayette prairie
K089 Black Belt
K090 Live oak-sea oats
K093 Great Lakes spruce-fir forest
K095 Great Lakes pine forest
K098 Northern floodplain forest
K099 Maple-basswood forest
K100 Oak-hickory forest
K101 Elm-ash forest
K102 Beech-maple forest
K103 Mixed mesophytic forest
K104 Appalachian oak forest
K106 Northern hardwoods
K107 Northern hardwoods-fir forest
K108 Northern hardwoods-spruce forest
K109 Transition between K104 and K106
K110 Northeastern oak-pine forest
K111 Oak-hickory-pine
K112 Southern mixed forest
K113 Southern floodplain forest
K114 Pocosin
K115 Sand pine scrub
K116 Subtropical pine forest

1 Jack pine
5 Balsam fir
14 Northern pin oak
15 Red pine
16 Aspen
17 Pin cherry
18 Paper birch
20 White pine-northern red oak-red maple
21 Eastern white pine
26 Sugar maple-basswood
27 Sugar maple
37 Northern white-cedar
39 Black ash-American elm-red maple
40 Post oak-blackjack oak
42 Bur oak
44 Chestnut oak
45 Pitch pine
46 Eastern redcedar
51 White pine-chestnut oak
52 White oak-black oak-northern red oak
53 White oak
55 Northern red oak
64 Sassafras-persimmon
65 Pin oak-sweetgum
66 Ashe juniper-redberry (Pinchot) juniper
67 Mohrs (shin) oak
68 Mesquite
69 Sand pine
70 Longleaf pine
71 Longleaf pine-scrub oak
72 Southern scrub oak
73 Southern redcedar
74 Cabbage palmetto
75 Shortleaf pine
76 Shortleaf pine-oak
78 Virginia pine-oak
79 Virginia pine
80 Loblolly pine-shortleaf pine
81 Loblolly pine
82 Loblolly pine-hardwood
83 Longleaf pine-slash pine
84 Slash pine
85 Slash pine-hardwood
89 Live oak
109 Hawthorn
110 Black oak
111 South Florida slash pine
202 White spruce-paper birch
217 Aspen
220 Rocky Mountain juniper
236 Bur oak
237 Interior ponderosa pine
238 Western juniper
239 Pinyon-juniper
242 Mesquite
252 Paper birch

109 Ponderosa pine shrubland
110 Ponderosa pine-grassland
310 Needle-and-thread-blue grama
401 Basin big sagebrush
402 Mountain big sagebrush
403 Wyoming big sagebrush
404 Threetip sagebrush
405 Black sagebrush
406 Low sagebrush
407 Stiff sagebrush
408 Other sagebrush types
411 Aspen woodland
412 Juniper-pinyon woodland
413 Gambel oak
502 Grama-galleta
504 Juniper-pinyon pine woodland
505 Grama-tobosa shrub
509 Transition between oak-juniper woodland and mahogany-oak association
601 Bluestem prairie
602 Bluestem-prairie sandreed
603 Prairie sandreed-needlegrass
604 Bluestem-grama prairie
605 Sandsage prairie
606 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
607 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
608 Wheatgrass-grama-needlegrass
609 Wheatgrass-grama
611 Blue grama-buffalo grass
612 Sagebrush-grass
702 Black grama-alkali sacaton
703 Black grama-sideoats grama
704 Blue grama-western wheatgrass
706 Blue grama-sideoats grama
707 Blue grama-sideoats grama-black grama
708 Bluestem-dropseed
709 Bluestem-grama
710 Bluestem prairie
711 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie
714 Grama-bluestem
715 Grama-buffalo grass
716 Grama-feathergrass
717 Little bluestem-Indiangrass-Texas wintergrass
718 Mesquite-grama
719 Mesquite-liveoak-seacoast bluestem
720 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (dunes)
721 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (plains)
722 Sand sagebrush-mixed prairie
724 Sideoats grama-New Mexico feathergrass-winterfat
727 Mesquite-buffalo grass
729 Mesquite
730 Sand shinnery oak
731 Cross timbers-Oklahoma
732 Cross timbers-Texas (little bluestem-post oak)
733 Juniper-oak
734 Mesquite-oak
735 Sideoats grama-sumac-juniper
801 Savanna
802 Missouri prairie
803 Missouri glades
804 Tall fescue
808 Sand pine scrub
809 Mixed hardwood and pine
810 Longleaf pine-turkey oak hills
811 South Florida flatwoods
812 North Florida flatwoods
813 Cutthroat seeps
814 Cabbage palm flatwoods
815 Upland hardwood hammocks
816 Cabbage palm hammocks
817 Oak hammocks
820 Everglades flatwoods

Little bluestem is a dominant understory species occurring in open-growing pine stands including interior ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum) in the western United States and longleaf pine (P. palustris), pitch pine (P. rigida), loblolly pine (P. taeda), slash pine (P. elliottii), shortleaf pine (P. echinata), and Virginia pine (P. virginiana) in the eastern and central parts of the country. Little bluestem is also important in tallgrass, mixed-grass, coastal, and bluestem prairies. Prairie communities often occur in a mosaic with oak (Quercus spp.) savannas and forests and eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) glades. The species is most well-known where it occurs in the prairie of Kansas and Nebraska. In these areas it is 1 of the most prominent species of intermediate height. For a description of plant associations related to specific fire regimes see Fire Ecology.

Classification systems describing plant communities in which little bluestem is a dominant species are listed below:

Arizona: [253]
Colorado: [12,28,87]
Florida: [1]
Indiana: [144,277]
Kansas: [173]
Kentucky: [241]
Maryland: [269,270]
Massachusetts: [100]
Minnesota: [9]
Montana: [62,218]
New Mexico: [87,253]
New York: [225]
North Carolina: [240]
North Dakota: [132,191,295]
Ohio: [125]
South Carolina: [200]
South Dakota: [53]
Tennessee: [241]
Texas: [89,259]
Utah: [253]
West Virginia: [241]
Wisconsin: [9,78]
Wyoming: [9,261]


SPECIES: Schizachyrium scoparium
Little bluestem is an erect, native, warm-season, perennial, solid-stemmed grass that exhibits both a caespitose and a sod-forming habit [10,127,155,283,284,287]. Little bluestem is generally nonrhizomatous [94], but occasionally on wet sites it may form an open or loose sod with short rhizomes connecting small tufts [292]. Under dry conditions little bluestem grows erect in distinct clumps, usually 4 to 10 inches (10-25 cm) in diameter and 5 to 10 inches (13-25 cm) apart [10,284,288]. Even in nearly pure stands on upland sites, little bluestem maintains the caespitose form with bare ground between plants [155]. 

Culms are solid and 1.6 to 6.6 feet (0.5-2 m) tall, depending on soil fertility and water availability [94,127,292]. In Nebraska, plants commonly have 100 to 300 stems crowded into a 4-inch (10 cm) diameter bunch [287]. The flat, slender leaves are 8 to 14 inches long (20-36 cm) at maturity and spread to twice the area of the base. Leaf height depends on soil fertility and available water. Leaves may reach a height of 20 inches (51 cm) on south-facing wet sites, but only 3 to 5 inches (8-13 cm) on south-facing xeric sites [149,284]. The leaves are light green during spring and summer, but at maturity both leaves and stems turn a purplish- or reddish-brown [10,288,292]. The Flora of North America [111] provides a morphological description and identification key for little bluestem. 

Little bluestem's root system is deep and fibrous [273]; individual roots are relatively fine with diameters ranging from 0.004 to 0.04 inch (0.1-1 mm). Most roots grow almost vertically downwards to depths of 4.5 to 5.5 feet (1.3-1.75 m), but some extend laterally from the bunches [284,287]. Little bluestem hosts arbuscular mycorrhizae which seem to be most important with water stress [19]. Mycorrhizal colonization increases with declining water availability [65].

Little bluestem is widely distributed and has much ecotypic differentiation with respect to height, bunch size, leaf length, and phenology [19,192,275]. Plants grown from seed collected from 2 nearby sites in Illinois showed variation in height, length of leaves, time of flowering, and clump diameter as a result of seed source, and higher productivity plants came from same-site seed [19]. A study of nonstructural carbohydrate concentration (carbohydrates available for growth after dormancy or defoliation) found significant differences (p<0.05) between 4 selections of little bluestem. Among the selections, aboveground nonstructural carbohydrate concentration at the beginning of winter ranged from 15 to 37% and root concentration ranged from 10 to 22% [275].


Breeding system: Little bluestem spikelets grow in pairs; 1 is sessile and 1 pedicellate. The sessile spikelet is perfect and 2-flowered with the upper flower fertile. Pedicellate spikelets are staminate or neuter [94].

Pollination: No entry.

Seed production: Little bluestem seed production is relatively consistent, except during drought years when inflorescences may fail to develop [44,263,288]. Branson [44] reported that about 75% of little bluestem stems produce flowers. Flowering appears to depend on growing conditions. On Nebraska prairie sites under intense competition from tall grasses, little bluestem flowered regularly only during wet years. On uplands where competition was less severe, little bluestem flowered more regularly [245]. Pure seed averages approximately 225,000 to 250,000 per pound (496,000-551,000/kg) [80,114,236,283]. The Pastura cultivar, originating in New Mexico, has the highest seed yield among tested little bluestem varieties; pure live seed production averages 100 pounds per acre (113 kg/ha) [201]. 

Roos and Quinn [231] reported insect predation of spikelets was high in New Jersey. Many fertile spikelets contained insect larvae or were empty with no larvae or caryopsis. Much of this is due to the larval stage of a cicidomylid midge that develops within the panicle. This species of midge has 3 generations per season, and reports of seed loss range from 30 to 60% for sand bluestem (A. gerardii var. paucipilus) and big bluestem (A. g. var. gerardii) [64,279]. 

Seed dispersal: Seed is generally wind-dispersed only short distances from the parent plant [183]. A maximum dispersal of 5 to 6 feet (1.5-1.8 m) was observed with wind speeds up to 18 miles per hour (30 km/h) [285,286].  In some cases animals carry seeds farther, but little bluestem's short dispersal is probably a factor in its slow recolonization of disturbed sites [227].

Seed banking: Little bluestem seed is estimated to be of intermediate longevity. In Massachusetts, buried viable seeds have been found in 37-year-old pine plantations where no parent plants occurred [180]. In the Great Plains, however, few studies have documented viable seed buried in the soil [2,177,220]. In a seed bank and seed rain study in Missouri, little bluestem was the 3rd most abundant plant in seed rain (6.6% of total) but was absent from the soil seed bank [220].  

Germination: Germination in the field appears to be low, with seedlings widely spaced or absent [236]. Little bluestem seed requires light, stratification, and daytime temperatures of 68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (20-30 °C) for high germination rates. Among a number of temperature combinations and durations tested, little bluestem germination rates were highest with 16 hours at 62 degrees Fahrenheit (16.5 °C) and 8 hours at 81 degrees Fahrenheit (27 °C) [232]. Stratification generally requires 30 to 60 days of 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 °C); after this, germination initiates in 4 days if temperatures are 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 °C). With this stratification and temperature regime, approximately 50% of little bluestem seed germinates within 6 days [102].

Seedling establishment/growth:   Compared to other Great Plains grass species, little bluestem is relatively tolerant of drought during seedling establishment [171,196]. Mueller and Weaver [196] found seedlings of little bluestem were less drought resistant than seedlings of grama grasses (Bouteloua spp.), but more drought resistant than seedlings of big bluestem, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), prairie Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), basin wildrye (Leymus cinereus), and western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii).  Differential seedling response to drought makes little bluestem more prominent in xeric grasslands. While little bluestem grows and establishes well on mesic lowland sites, it usually is not dominant because of competition with big bluestem [171]. 

Asexual regeneration: Little bluestem commonly expands vegetatively by tiller expansion and, less frequently, via short, inconspicuous rhizomes [284].

With a large geographic range, little bluestem occupies a wide variety of soil types and landforms [10,13,75,96,97,236,263,285,295]. Common soil types and site characteristics where little bluestem is dominant are listed below by region:

Location Soil characteristics Site characteristics Reference
eastern Kansas best growth on coarse soils wide range of sites [236]
western Kansas poorly developed soils xeric uplands
Great Lakes area and Nebraska coarse, well-drained, nutrient deficient soils stabilized dunes [38,176]
northeastern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, southwestern Michigan, Indiana, western Ohio, and Missouri  sapric peat soil prairie marshes  [211]
Indiana and Illinois coarse, well-drained, nutrient deficient soils sites with bedrock or clay layers near surface [144]
West Virginia thin soils steep slopes [249]
southern Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, acidic, sandy soils wide range of sites [204]
Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Tennessee coarse, nutrient deficient soils wide range of sites, commonly with ultramafic parent material [268]
eastern Montana alkaline steep slopes [194]
Texas and Louisiana vertisols and alfisols coastal plains [242]

Little bluestem can grow well with little available nitrogen and low soil fertility. With nitrogen addition on plots of little bluestem, big bluestem, Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), quackgrass (Elymus repens), and ticklegrass (Agrostis scabra), little and big bluestem were excluded by others on plots with highest available nitrogen. The authors suggest atmospheric nitrogen deposition may destabilize tallgrass prairie and favor less desirable species [289].

From southern New England to Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, little bluestem grows at low elevations in coastal prairie [301]. In the Southeast little bluestem occurs on xeric sites in the mid-elevation Piedmont and in higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains [240]. It grows in higher elevations in the western United States, particularly in Arizona. Elevational ranges for several western states are presented below [95,118,148,184,260,292]: 

Arizona above 4,000 feet (1,219 m)
New Mexico 3,000 to 9,000 feet (914-2,743 m)
Utah 3,500 to 7,500 feet (1,067-2,286 m)
Colorado 3,500 to 9,500 feet (1,067-2,867 m)
Wyoming 3,400 to 7,400 feet (1,036-2,256 m)
South Dakota below 5,475 feet (1,669 m)
Montana 2,100 to 4,800 feet (640-1,463 m)

Little bluestem is dominant in the true prairie of eastern Kansas where mean annual precipitation averages 30 to 38 inches (762-965 mm) and the growing season is 170 to 190 days long; it also grows in areas receiving 10 to 60 inches (250-1,500 mm) of mean annual precipitation [243,260]. Longleaf pine/little bluestem savannas on the Gulf coast receive 44 to 60 inches (1,100-1,600 mm) mean annual precipitation; coarse soils and frequent fire maintain a xeric appearance [46]. Interior ponderosa pine/little bluestem savannas in the Black Hills, South Dakota, receive about 18 to 30 inches (457-762 mm) of precipitation each year [260]. Knapp [165] observed that little bluestem experienced lower predawn and mid-day leaf osmotic potentials than both switchgrass (a low elevation mesic grass) and big bluestem (a low to mid-elevation mesic grass), indicating little bluestem is able to remain physiologically active longer under low soil moisture than either of the others. Extended periods of drought, however, reduce little bluestem cover. Severe drought in the 1930s in Kansas allowed the more drought resistant sideoats grama (B. curtipendula) to replace little bluestem in many areas [10]. Because of little bluestem seedling tolerance for drought and shade intolerance, big bluestem is dominant or exclusive on more mesic sites [171].

Little bluestem can be generally described as an early to mid-successional grassland species. Competition trials with tickle grass, a common early successional species, showed that in low-nitrogen conditions typical of early postdisturbance habitats, tickle grass displaced little bluestem and big bluestem as well as another early successional grass, quackgrass. With intermediate nitrogen availability little bluestem replaced tickle grass [262]. The paragraphs below describe succession in specific plant communities where little bluestem occurs. For information on succession linked to historic fire regimes see Fire Ecology.

Dunes: In Lake Michigan area dune succession, 0 to 25 year-old dunes are dominated by American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata); little bluestem is an important species from 55 years to 175 years after dune stabilization where it grows with bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and common juniper (J. communis). Gradually mixed pine forest (eastern white pine (P. strobus), red pine (P. resinosa), white spruce (Picea glauca), balsam fir (Abies balsamea), and paper birch (Betula papyrifera)) develops [176]. Succession on dunes in Nebraska is similar; more of these communities are in mid-seral condition now because of fire exclusion and less intensive grazing on harsh sites [252]. 

Prairie/savanna/forest: Little bluestem is an early to mid-successional species in prairie/savanna/forest mosaics of the Great Plains and eastern United States. In Illinois Sand Prairie Scrub Oak Nature Preserve, frequent disturbance (fire and bison grazing and trampling) established prairies of little bluestem with sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes) and prairie sandreed (Calamovilfa longifolia) with areas of open blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), black oak (Q. velutina), and black hickory (Carya texana). Without frequent disturbance that is at least partially stand-clearing, closed-canopy black oak forests develop [31]. Little bluestem decreases with succession but often remains a minor or incidental species in late-successional communities [31,166]. The increase in oak density has been greatest on sites with deeper soils; ridgetops and other areas with shallow clay loam soils have had little increase [43]. 

Southern prairies: Woody cover has also increased in the xeric southern mixed prairie of western Texas; this has resulted from fire exclusion and, to a lesser extent, non-native species introduction. These communities consist of little bluestem, buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), sideoats grama, and Texas tussockgrass (Nassella leucotricha); oaks, Ashe juniper (J. ashei), and prickly-pear (Opuntia spp.) are increasing as a result of fire exclusion [56]. Fire exclusion has been a major cause of increase in shrub and tree cover in little bluestem prairie (see Fire Ecology), but the historical extent of grasslands and woody species were likely also influenced by bison trampling, horning, and rubbing. Bison damage to shrubs and trees was observed on a tallgrass prairie site in Oklahoma; in a 2-year period 4% of shrubs and saplings were "severely" damaged or killed and 13% had light or moderate injury [71]. In coastal prairie historically dominated by little bluestem with brownseed paspalum (Paspalum plicatulum) and indiangrass, tallowtree (Sapium sebiferum), a subtropical deciduous tree from China and Japan, has invaded and increased in density. Tallowtree may be the first woody species to increase on these habitats; after its development, common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), and American elm (Ulmus americana) are facilitated [51]. Similarly, fire exclusion and grazing practices have allowed increased density of the native honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) which has also facilitated the establishment of the above-mentioned shrubs [112,276]. 

Eastern redcedar "glades": In the Ozark Mountains, eastern redcedar cover and area are increasing in the absence of fire. Succession in these "cedar glades" (limestone/dolomite hillsides and ridgetops with grasses and eastern redcedar) has been described in several stages. First a grass dominated landscape of sideoats grama with Missouri orange coneflower (Rudbeckia missouriensis), compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), big bluestem, switchgrass, indiangrass, little bluestem, and puffsheath dropseed (Sporobolus neglectus) develops. Secondly, shrubs and trees, including eastern redcedar, fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), and common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) become more prominent and the understory becomes dominated by big bluestem, switchgrass, and little bluestem. Rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rudfidulum), winged elm (U. alata), Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana), chinkapin oak (Q. muehlenbergii), white ash (Fraxinus americana), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), and white oak (Q. alba) are later successional species [29]. Increase in cover of eastern redcedar between 1970 and 2000 is estimated at 113% [282]. 

Eastern forests: In the eastern United States, little bluestem is often a component of early to mid-seral stages of deciduous or pine-deciduous forests that occur along the Gulf coast north to southern New England. In the Georgia Piedmont, a 200-year succession model was derived by observing sites with different times since agricultural abandonment. During the 1st 10 years, vegetation is dominated by perennial grasses, including little bluestem, purple threeawn (Aristida purpurea), lovegrass (Eragrostis spp.), and forbs (onions (Allium spp.), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), slender scratchdaisy (Croptilon divarticatum), asters (Aster spp.), and goldenrods (Solidago spp.)). Little bluestem cover is highest between 10 and 20 years after disturbance. Shrub cover (mostly Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) and blackberry (Rubus spp.)) increases dramatically after 20 to 30 years; growth of seedlings of future overstory (loblolly and shortleaf pines) and understory (persimmon, common hackberry, flameleaf sumac (R. copallinum) components is facilitated by shrubs. Pines remain dominant in the overstory until approximately 100 years after disturbance; below the pine overstory grass species persist that are characteristic of both early successional open forests and later successional closed forests. Understory species diversity and abundance is low after about 100 years as the canopy becomes more closed and hardwoods replace pines [203].

Little bluestem is a warm season grass [39]. It starts growth in the spring with only a few leaves but then fills out rapidly. Using stored carbohydrates, new shoots develop from axillary buds below the ground surface. Little bluestem begins growth in late spring after cool-season grasses have already developed. In Oklahoma, little bluestem begins growth about 20 days earlier than big bluestem [7]. Little bluestem begins growth in early April in the southern part of its range and in May in the northern part of its range [36,37,123,155,236]. 

Miller [192] observed that little bluestem phenology follows a well-defined pattern, in which the date of anthesis and the period of active growth are directly related to the length of the growing season. This pattern was also noted by McMillan [187,188], who found that plants of northern and western origin flowered earliest (usually July), while plants of southern and eastern origin flowered later (around October). Plants from northern origins mature under long-day lengths and a short frost-free period. Plants from southern origin are adapted to shorter day lengths and a long frost-free period. Flowering is stimulated by and may occur earlier as the result of fire, particularly when it occurs in late spring (see Plant Response to Fire) [138]. Little bluestem shows considerable ecotypic variation in relation to the time of flowering [148,163,187,188]. Time of flowering in several states is [7,10,95,123,155,226,245,263]: 

State Beginning of flowering End of flowering
Kansas August September
Montana July  August
North Dakota early August September
Nebraska August September
Oklahoma August September
South Dakota August September
Texas August December
Wyoming August September

Severe frost ends the growing season and causes dormancy [10]. Leaves are red and brown at maturity and red in fall or winter [273]. However, in southern latitudes plants may not go completely dormant. In Texas, Dyksterhuis [101] observed that although plants appeared dormant, new shoots continued to originate at the base from October to December, and portions of the plant remained green throughout winter. During fall and winter, a portion of total nitrogen is translocated belowground. Adams and Wallace [6] found that at time of flowering, aboveground plant parts had 55.6% nitrogen compared with 44.4% in belowground organs. After the growing season, these values changed to 35.6% in aboveground parts and 64.4% in belowground organs. In the northern part of its range, little bluestem loses some leaves during flowering (approximately August) but resumes growth after flowering and becomes dormant with frost in October [123,183]. In the southern part of its range, flowering takes place as late as November; dormancy is shortly thereafter and may be incomplete [101,115].


SPECIES: Schizachyrium scoparium
Fire adaptations: Following fire, increased soil temperature, light penetration, and available nutrients increase growth rates of little bluestem both above- and belowground [88,146]. There has been some disagreement about the relative importance of each of these factors but it appears that each is important to some degree [88,247]. As a warm season grass, little bluestem is well adapted to spring and fall fires; at these times of year sufficient carbohydrate stores exist. Lightning-caused fire in summer was historically common in the bluestem prairie, but fire during the growing season is more detrimental to this species [26,42,107]. The ratio of  warm season to cool season grasses is usually altered by fire, most likely because of phenological differences between the groups rather than microclimate amelioration [247]. Root growth of little bluestem is increased 19 to 24% by fire depending on frequency [88]. 

Fire regimes: Little bluestem is present in many ecosystems that experience frequent fire including xeric, open pine (Pinus spp.) and oak stands, tallgrass, mixed-grass, bluestem, and coastal prairies. Fire regimes for plant communities and ecosystems in which little bluestem occurs are discussed below by region. Habitat descriptions begin with the Northeast and continue clockwise south to Florida, west to the southwestern states and Mexico, and north through the Ozark Mountains and Great Plains to the Great Lakes area, southern Canada, North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. A table provided below the text provides further information on these plant communities; the text is generally more location-specific than the table. For further information regarding fire regimes and fire ecology of these ecosystems, see the 'Fire Ecology and Adaptation' section of the FEIS species summary for the plant community or ecosystem dominants described below.

Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut: On the Atlantic coast from Cape Cod to Long Island, coastal sandplain grasslands include little bluestem, yellow sedge (Carex pennsylvanica), and poverty oatgrass (Danthonia spicata) with some inclusions of bear oak (Q. ilicifolia) and pitch pine. Sandplain grasslands were maintained by fire, grazing, and salt spray [99,100]. Prairie patches on Long Island maintained by Native American intentional burning and later by settlers' clearing support little bluestem, big bluestem, broomsedge bluestem (A. virginicus), switchgrass, indiangrass, Greene's rush (Juncus greenei), goldenrods, asters, and sedges (Carex spp.) [157]. 

Inland in the oak-hickory (Carya spp.) forest type of southern New England, little bluestem grows with pin cherry (P. pensylvanica), goldenrod, and redtop (Agrostis gigantea) in fire-maintained openings [178,204]. Some of these communities were established by fire at approximately 10-year-intervals during the 1600s; others are present because of  agricultural clearing and abandonment or low nutrient content and soil acidity. After a single fire, black cherry (P. serotina) invades and openings are lost to ingrowth of northern red oak (Q. rubra), white oak, black oak, and scarlet oak (Q. coccinea), hickories, sweet birch (B. lenta), red maple (A. rubrum); eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and American beech (Fagus grandifolia) are present on sites with fire absent longest [205]. Relatively frequent fire (less than 10-year intervals) is required to suppress black cherry, sweet birch, and red maple in favor of little bluestem-dominated openings [178]. Prescribed annual spring fire has been used to maintain openings where they still exist [205]. 

New Jersey: Little bluestem is an important understory species in pitch pine barrens of New Jersey. These communities burned at 10- to 15-year intervals through the 1600s [179], though some areas were burned annually by Native Americans [205]. Prescribed burning in the 1900s in the New Jersey pine stands has taken place at 4- to 5-year intervals depending on fuel reduction needs. Fire excluded stands support more oaks than were historically present; prescribed burning has sought to increase forage production and recreate historic pine stands by killing oaks and/or allowing better pine establishment on mineral soil [55]. Indirect evidence suggests that fires were frequent in the pitch pine barrens of New Jersey: after fire, pitch pine sprouts at the base and is able to produce seed within 3 years. Sprouts of most of the associates are not able to produce seed for about 20 years. Thus fire at 8- to 12-year-intervals over a long period of time would presumably have created nearly pure stands of pitch pine [178].

Maryland and Pennsylvania: Serpentine oak and pine barrens associated with low fertility soils were maintained by fires set by Native Americans to improve hunting through the early 1700s [269,282]. Grazing later became the defoliation event maintaining these communities [269]. Since the early 1900s, in the absence of either of these disturbances, conifers (eastern redcedar and Virginia pine) and oaks are invading and/or increasing in density on these historically open areas [270,282]. Since 1938 in Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area, 80% of grassland and savanna communities have become more closed-canopy conifer stands [270]. 

Virginia, North and South Carolina: On xeric sites in the southern Appalachians with open canopy oak and pine stands, little bluestem, rosette grass (Dichanthelium spp.), and indiangrass are the most abundant postfire grass species, though their cover generally remains low [133]. In the upper Piedmont and mountains, on xeric sites with rock outcrops and soils derived from mafic materials, little bluestem occurs in the understory of open woodlands dominated by eastern redcedar, hickories, and chestnut oak (Q. prinus). Little is known about the disturbance and fire history of these stands east of the Appalachians. In this region fire exclusion does not allow extensive canopy development: Small and Wentworth [240] state edaphic factors, rather than fire and disturbance history, are likely the major determinants of the distribution of this relatively unproductive community type. 

Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana: Little bluestem, slender bluestem, and pinehill bluestem have been important understory components in longleaf, loblolly, and shortleaf pine savannas and the Florida dry prairie [141,181]. Longleaf pine ecosystems are widely-distributed from the Piedmont and Coastal Plain in the southeastern United States and in the mountains regions of northwestern Georgia and northeastern Alabama on ridges and south slopes. Common associates include shortleaf pine, Virginia pine, blackjack oak, and chestnut oak [181]. Fire in longleaf pine stands was frequent: before settlement understory fire occurred at 1- to 4-year intervals with mixed-severity fire occurring at 5- to 10-year-intervals. Longleaf pine/scrub oak communities experienced surface fire at 6- to 10-year intervals with canopy fire occurring at 35 to more  than 200 year intervals [282]. There is evidence that these communities have evolved with frequent fire: there is a high lightning strike frequency; with fire exclusion hardwood succession is rapid; and there are many fire-adapted species including resprouting shrubs and longleaf pine [219]. Frequent fire in these ecosystems prevents much fuel buildup, and fire intensity and severity are usually low; fuel loading in longleaf pine stands ranges from 300 to 1,000 pounds per acre (336-1,120 kg/ha) depending on how open the canopy is [219,282]. Historically, fires were of variable scale with organic layers in peat bogs sometimes allowing spread during dry periods. Fires typically occurred in May or June; lightning is more frequent in July but precipitation is more regular at this time [282]. Currently much prescribed fire takes place in May and June but also in winter and fall [46,282]. Fire exclusion for over 20 years allows canopy closure as loblolly pine, shortleaf pine, southern red oak (Q. falcata), black cherry, black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) increase [45,282]. Timber harvest and fire suppression have reduced longleaf savannas in Georgia, while Alabama and Florida have more communities intact [181]. 

Little bluestem and pinehill bluestem are prominent in openings in the widespread loblolly pine-hardwood forest type where fire has limited tree density [135]. Prior to settlement, shortleaf pine had fire intervals of 2 to 6 years on fertile sites and 6 to 15 years on less favorable sites with less fuel accumulation. After settlement, annual burning was common in shortleaf pine stands to increase forage production. Slash and pond pine (P. serotina) stands had 3- to 4-year fire intervals, and loblolly pine stands had 5- to 6-year fire intervals [282]. Manipulation of fire frequency (annual, biennial, or triennial) and season (March or May) on a slash pine plantation in Louisiana showed that pinehill bluestem was well-adapted to these short fire intervals. Pinehill bluestem was dominant except on annually-burned sites where slender bluestem (with smaller leaves) was dominant [128]. Suppression efforts in the 1920s caused a decline in fire frequency [282]. Historically fires burned the greatest area in late spring, though lightning season is from May to September [145]. 

Remnants of the Florida dry prairie are dominated by little bluestem, pineland threeawn (A. stricta), lopsided indiangrass (S. secundum) and low shrubs. The Florida dry prairie was fire maintained, and with urbanization, agricultural conversion, and decline in fire frequency, these communities have been classified by the Nature Conservancy as "threatened." In the Myakka River State Park of southwestern Florida 15,000 to 17,500 acres (6000-7000 ha) of this community type remain. Historically the area was larger; live oaks (Q. virginiana), laurel oaks (Q. laurifolia), saw-palmetto (Serenoa repens), and to a lesser extent slash pines have invaded and/or increased with fire exclusion since the 1940s [145]. 

Texas:  In this geographic area, little bluestem is common in loblolly, longleaf, slash, and shortleaf pine communities as described above as well as in coastal, blackland, Fayette, and bluestem prairies, and savannas dominated by Ashe juniper, honey mesquite, post oak (Q. stellata), and live oak. The coastal prairie is dominated by little and sand bluestems, brownseed paspalum, Fendler threeawn (A. purpurea var. longiseta), and indiangrass on uplands; other areas are dominated by dune bluestem and gulf cordgrass (Spartina spartinae) [49]. In the coastal prairie of Texas and Louisiana woody species encroachment was historically limited by shrink-swell clays, fire (which occurred at less than 10-year intervals), and lack of continuous heavy grazing [242,282]. With livestock grazing, fire exclusion, and land conversion, approximately 1% of the coastal prairie is intact [242]. Vertisol soils usually do not support an oak component, but where soils are alfisols, post oak-blackjack or honey mesquite woodlands develop [49]. Post oak-blackjack oak savannas occurred in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and, to a lesser extent, Illinois and Indiana; historic fire interval was about 10 years in Texas [282]. Fire intervals may range from less than 35 to about 100 years depending on canopy closure and fine fuel quantity and moisture content [190,214]. With increasing forest density, the probability of the site burning decreases. A study in eastern Texas (Tyler County) found that where forest had developed, surface fuels had a higher moisture holding capacity and burned much less frequently [250].

The xeric, southern, mixed-grass prairie of central Texas consists of little bluestem, buffalograss, sideoats grama, tussockgrass, gramas, tobosa (Pleuraphis mutica), sand dropseed (S. cryptandrus), tridens (Tridens spp.), and threeawns (Aristida spp.). The historic fire frequency and historic tree density are not well known. This type is frequently associated with live oak-Ashe juniper stands and honey mesquite savannas and woodlands. It is generally assumed that prairie and low-density savanna burned at less than 10 year intervals while higher density honey mesquite woodlands burned less frequently, at 35 to 100 year intervals [214]. Where Ashe juniper and live oak are well developed, surface fire probably occurred at less than 35 year intervals [56,214]. With fire exclusion, the area covered by Ashe juniper, live oak, and prickly-pear has increased dramatically [56]. Primarily as a result of overgrazing, broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae) has invaded and increased on some dry grasslands. There have been efforts to use prescribed fire to reduce its cover, but grass production, which commonly ranges from 198 to 693 pounds per acre (224-784 kg/ha), is generally too low for prescribed burning [117]. 

Blackland prairie occurs only in Texas. Little bluestem and Texas tussockgrass are dominant with associated grass species including rough dropseed (S. asper) and big bluestem. Fayette prairie, present in southern Texas, is dominated by little bluestem and buffalo grass with lesser amounts of paintbrush bluestem (A. ternarius), threeawns, and paspalum (Paspalum spp.). Both blackland and Fayette prairie types had fire return intervals of less than 10 years [214,282]. Fayette prairie often occurs in association with (and in the understory of) oak-hickory woodlands and savannas that include southern red oak, blackjack oak, post oak, and overcup oak (Q. lyrata). Woodland areas had a fire return interval of less than 35 years [282]. 

Bluestem prairie is a widespread and well-known grassland type that occurs from northern Texas and Oklahoma north to North Dakota and Minnesota. The community dominants are big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, and Indian grass [94]. This community type is discussed in detail below in the Kansas, Nebraska, western Missouri, and Iowa section. 

Mexico: In the understory of Madrean evergreen oak (Emory oak (Q. emoryi), Arizona white oak (Q. arizonica), and gray oak (Q. grisea)) and pine woodlands, little bluestem grows with muhlys (Muhlenbergia spp.), and cane bluestem (Bothriochloa barbinodis). Little bluestem is more prominent in the lower elevations of this type, occurring primarily in central Mexico but also in southern Texas and Arizona [48]. These communities generally experience surface fire at 20 to 70 year intervals [193,256]. One study in northern Mexico found that stands of this type had a mean fire return interval of 70 years (between 1770 and 1940) [193]. 

New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah: Little bluestem is present in upland grasslands, shrubsteppes, and dry, open forests of pines, junipers and oaks in this geographic area [292]. Common shrub associates of little bluestem in ponderosa pine, Colorado pinyon (P. edulis) and Gambel oak (Q. gambelii) habitat types include wavyleaf oak (Q. undulata), snowberry (Symphoricarpos spp.), skunkbush sumac (R. trilobata), Rocky Mountain juniper (J. scopulorum), Emory's oak, gray oak, and Arizona white oak. Other grasses include blue grama (B. gracilis), big bluestem, muttongrass (Poa fendleriana), and muhly grasses [91]. Ponderosa pine stands in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico had regular surface fire in intervals of 2 to 10 years [93]. In Colorado, fire regimes in interior ponderosa forest types below 8,200 feet (2,500 m) were historically likely mixed and variable with fires historically larger than 3.6 square miles (10 km2) occurring 50 to 60 years apart [162]. Stands were not even-aged on a landscape scale; crown fire was very localized and confined to younger stands. When crown fire occurred it created openings in which blue grama, Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides), and little bluestem were important forage species [161].

Sand sage prairie is present in New Mexico, northern Texas, and western Oklahoma and Kansas; leadplant (Amorpha canescens), sand sagebrush (A. filifolia), ephedra (Ephedra spp.), white ratany (Krameria grayi), honey mesquite, sand shinnery oak (Q. havardii), and yuccas (Yucca spp.) are dominant shrubs. Little bluestem is a minor component, and dominant grasses include sand bluestem, purple threeawn, plains lovegrass (E. intermedia), dropseeds (Sporobolus spp.) and Indian ricegrass [91]. Direct evidence of fire history in this community type is lacking. Based on accounts of European-American settlers and analyses of rates of honey mesquite increase following fire, McPherson [190] and Paysen and others [214] estimate that fires historically occurred at 7- to 10-year intervals, as this frequency would maintain the low-density savannas described by early European-American settlers.

Oklahoma: In the ecotone between eastern deciduous forest and Great Plains grassland, little bluestem occurs in a mosaic of prairie, forest, and savanna vegetation types that are commonly differentiated by fire frequency. Savannas typically experienced fire at less than 10-year intervals, and forests had mean fire return intervals of less than 35 years [282]. With fire exclusion, post oak and blackjack oak forests have developed in central Oklahoma where savannas were once more prevalent [154]. More recently, selective and clearcut timber harvest have been used for maintaining a more open habitat mosaic useful for deer [185]. Little bluestem is also prominent in mid-grass prairies associated with the sand shinnery oak community type of the Texas panhandle, eastern New Mexico, and Oklahoma. Other common shrubs include netleaf hackberry (C. reticulata), honey mesquite, and yuccas; historic fire return interval was less than 35 years [214].

Kansas, Nebraska, western Missouri, and Iowa: Estimates of presettlement fire return intervals are based on anecdotal evidence or on studies of adjacent savannas where fire scars are discernable [282]. It is assumed that fire historically occurred in the bluestem prairie at less than 10-year-intervals [169,214,282]. Many fire scar surveys at the prairie-forest boundary show fire return intervals of 3 to 5 years. There are many reports of annual burning by Native Americans in the Great Plains, and it is likely that in some areas fire scar studies at the forest boundary have underestimated fire frequency within the prairie [282]. Though most prescribed burning now is in spring and, to a lesser extent, fall, lightning-caused presettlement fires were generally (85% according to historical records) in June, July, and August. Intentional burning by Native Americans took place in all months but most frequently in fall [107]. Fuel loads historically ranged from 1.1 to 3.4 tons per acre (2.5-7.6 t/ha). Given summer humidities and temperatures, flame lengths of 12 feet (3.7 m) are estimated based on these fuel loads [282]. Grazing by bison and elk was high intensity but sporadic in space and time leaving areas with abundant fuels to support fire [43]. Road construction, expansion of towns, conversion to agricultural use, fire suppression efforts, recommendations against intentional burning, and grazing have reduced fire frequency in the Great Plains. Generally, net primary production of the prairie and of little bluestem increases after fire (see Fire Effects).

Nebraska sandhills prairie occurs on uplands as far north as southern South Dakota; dominants include big, sand, and little bluestems, prairie sandreed, and needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata). Fire historically occurred at less than 10 year intervals [214].

Effects of fire and fire frequency have been well-studied in the Flint Hills and Konza Prairie. The Flint Hills prairie is one of the larger intact true prairie areas, covering about 4 million acres (1.6 million ha) in eastern Kansas and Nebraska south to northern Okalahoma. Much of it is unsuitable for cultivation because of steep topography and shallow soils [243]. Tree and shrub increase on little bluestem prairie in the Kansas Flint Hills between 1856 and 1969 was assessed using aerial surveys, field observations, and land survey data. During this period, on a landscape scale, woody plant cover increased only 8%, but on unburned sites between 1937 and 1969 cover increased 34% [43]. On the Konza Prairie in eastern Kansas, big and little bluestems and indiangrass increase with increasing fire frequency; with decreasing fire frequency eastern redcedar, American elm, honey-locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), and common hackberry woodlands develop. Older forests of this type also include bur oak (Q. macrocarpa) and eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) in ravine areas [3]. In this mixed-prairie less desirable grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass, slender wheatgrass (E. trachycaulus), and smooth brome (Bromus inermis) are controlled by fire, and, in fire's absence, these grasses increase with shrub and tree cover [26,238]. 

Little bluestem and tallgrass associates grow in the understory of bur oak, boxelder (A. negundo), and green ash (F. pennsylvanica) "stringer" woodlands along streams throughout the Midwest; these woodlands burned slightly less frequently than adjacent grasslands. Prescribed fire is now used to regenerate these stands as dominant trees sprout when top-killed; fire is also useful for reducing competition from Kentucky bluegrass [238]. 

Eastern Missouri and Arkansas: Warm season grasses, primarily little bluestem, are dominant in "cedar glades" (limestone and dolomite hillsides with variable density of eastern redcedar). A study of fire scars on eastern redcedar in a glade in southern Missouri showed a mean fire interval of 3.2 years between 1630 and 1870 (based on occurrence of 1 scar). Two or more trees showed fire scars at 8.75-year mean intervals (1730-1870); and 3 or more showed scars at 20-year intervals (1730-1870). Fire frequency declined somewhat starting in about 1870 as overgrazing reduced fuel loads and the Osage tribe was removed (the tribe had practiced annual burning in many areas). Frequency declined further in the 1940s with fire suppression and road building [130]. As a result of fire suppression there has been a large increase in eastern redcedar cover and density [282]. Cutting and herbicides have been used to reduce eastern redcedar density in the Great Plains; these have best results when done after prescribed fire [210]. Little bluestem was presumably more prominent in oak and hickory forests of the area when they burned at 7- to 14-year-intervals. These forests have now only very infrequent surface fires that are generally human caused, and little bluestem has only incidental cover in closed-canopy forests [282]. 

Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia: Pine and oak savannas maintained by fire were present in Tennessee and Kentucky. Burning was common practice of Native Americans prior to settlement by European-Americans and fires were intentionally set between about 1900 and 1940 when the Daniel Boone National Forest was established. Little bluestem is common in disturbed habitats in the area. Campbell and others [62] comment that, even without direct evidence, it is reasonable to assume that little bluestem was important in the savanna understory. Lightning-caused fires are rare in this area because precipitation is evenly distributed throughout the year [85]. Frequent fire, most likely intentionally set, would have been required to maintain openings. A study of annual, periodic (5-year fire interval), and no prescribed burning in an oak, sweetgum, and mockernut hickory (C. tomentosa) forest on the southeastern part of the Highland Rim, Tennessee, found that without burning little bluestem was completely shaded out in about 8 years [86]. 

Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio: Little bluestem is dominant in Illinois and Ohio sand prairies and blackjack oak/black oak savannas; decline in fire frequency has favored closed forests over savannas and increased oaks and black hickory density [16,17,125,151]. Herbaceous species in prairie, savanna, and, to a lesser extent, the forest understory include little bluestem, big bluestem, sand lovegrass, prairie sandreed, and prickly-pear [16,18,125]. Savanna overstories include blackjack oak, black oak, and black hickory [16,125]. Later successional forests support, most prominently, black oak, but also black hickory, sugar maple, pawpaw (Asimina triloba), white ash, white oak, and American elm [31]. Little bluestem growth under black oak canopies in forests is limited; this further decreases fire frequency and severity in closed canopy black oak stands [17]. In oak/hickory savannas grasses are generally 3 to 5 feet (1-2 m) tall with estimated fine fuel loading of 2 to 5 tons/acre (4 to 11t/ha) [282]. In post oak/blackjack oak savannas, fire at intervals less than 10 years increased cover of little bluestem and other warm season grasses and limited oak density [151,282]. In black oak forests fire occurred at approximately 35 year intervals; here it was less frequent because of less fine fuel loading [282]. Restoration efforts have included prescribed fire to maintain a mosaic of prairie, savanna, and forest [16]. As fire suppression has increased oak cover in savannas, less fire-resistant tree species (including red maple, black tupelo, and sugar maple) have increased as well [151]. 

Historically dry prairies and oak savannas were present in the western and northern parts of Indiana. Where preserved, these open scrub vegetation types are characterized by little bluestem, other bluestems, and porcupine grass (H. spartea) in the understory and oaks, Virginia pine, and winged elm in the overstory [35]. Fire at 10- to 35-year intervals has maintained some of these communities but edaphic factors are generally thought have a greater influence on their distribution [144,282]. Edaphic factors that limit forest development include excessive drainage because of coarse texture, nutrient deficiency, and substrates that limit root penetration. Though fire is important in the maintenance of some barrens in the eastern United States, it evidently is not the primary factor in Indiana. For example, some barrens vegetation types persist on soils with bedrock close to the surface even though fire has long been excluded [144].  

Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and southern Canada: In this area there were oak savannas as described for Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, many of which have become dominated by black oak to the near exclusion of prairie understory species. Fire does not carry well where the canopy has become closed; logging has been used to reduce stand density before prescribed fire. One site on the Leopold Memorial Reserve had fire successfully reintroduced after the removal of approximately 70-year-old black oaks with positive results for prairie grasses (little bluestem, prairie Junegrass) and forbs [143]. In the Great Lakes area, little bluestem, big bluestem, sedges, quackgrass, and Kentucky bluegrass occur in pine barrens where jack pine and red pine grow with bur oak, northern pin oak (Q. ellipsoidalis), and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) [280]. Edaphic and topographic factors largely determine the distribution of these communities; fire is of highly variable frequency (10-300 year intervals) and less important than it is in more mesic savannas and prairies [98,136,280]. Barrens have had little increase in tree cover even with 40 years of fire exclusion, generally because of edaphic limitations [280]. On more favorable sites canopies have closed and crown fire has maintained open patches with grassland species [143]. 

Effects of fire frequency in northern pin oak/bur oak savannas and forests in east-central Minnesota were studied by Peterson and Reich [216]. Study sites had had between 0 and 26 fires in the preceding 26 years. Frequent (more than 3 per decade) surface fire was required to reduce sapling density to savanna levels. Between 1984 and 1995, for stands burned more than 2 times, northern pin oak (50% mortality) was more susceptible to fire than bur oak (8% mortality). Based on these findings, the authors recommend a prescribed fire regime of 3 fires per decade to maintain open stands to balance sapling control with the need for some oak recruitment. Occasional fire exclusion is recommended. These findings are similar to the historic fire frequencies reported for these communities (<10 year intervals for bur oak types) [214,282]. In Minnesota, Kentucky bluegrass is prominent in savannas and prairie where tallgrass warm season species were historically more abundant; this change came with heavy grazing in the 1940s and is reversible with prescribed spring fire [257]. 

In Ontario and other parts of southern Canada there was historically a mosaic of prairie and oak, eastern white pine, and American chestnut (Castanea dentata) savannas and woodlands similar to those described for the Central and Great Lakes states. Savannas and prairie cover in Ontario is estimated at 12,500 to 15,000 acres (5,000-6,000 ha) prior to settlement; less than 1% of the original prairie and savanna vegetation in the vicinity is present today. These communities were correlated with well-drained sandy and/or gravelly soils on steep topography. Soil characteristics, intentional burning by Native Americans, and interactions thereof determined the extent of prairie and savanna [124].

North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming: Little bluestem occurs in this geographic area in interior ponderosa pine stands, streamside woodlands of deciduous trees, and open prairie. Riparian woodlands include green ash with lesser amounts of American elm, Rocky Mountain juniper, boxelder, bur oak, and quaking aspen. Other grasses present are western wheatgrass, blue and sideoats gramas, and plains muhly (M. cuspidata). These communities experience fire at 35- to 200-year intervals [282]. In the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota tallgrass species (little and big bluestem, and switchgrass) are dominant; historic fire frequency was probably less than 10 years [214]. Little bluestem is present in xeric ponderosa pine habitats of South Dakota, eastern Montana, eastern Wyoming, and western Nebraska (minor component in these communities in Nebraska) [50,218,264]. In the Black Hills ponderosa pine forests, south-facing slopes support open pine with little bluestem and western wheatgrass in the understory; cooler aspects have more shrub development and a closed canopy. These ponderosa pine stands had mean fire intervals of 16 years between 1388 and 1900 (when fire scars were only counted if present on more than 25% of trees, mean fire interval was 20 years). There was a fire-free interval of 104 years between 1890 and 1994; this was the longest on record and was coincident with an increase in ponderosa pine density in openings and savannas [50]. In this area little bluestem was/is present in blue grama-needle-and-thread grass-western wheatgrass prairies which burned at less than 35 year intervals as well as in the northern extent of the sandhills prairie which was characterized by fire at less than 10 year intervals [214].

Fire return intervals for plant communities and ecosystems in which little bluestem occurs are summarized below. Find further fire regime information for the plant communities in which this species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".

Community or Ecosystem Dominant Species Fire Return Interval Range (years)
bluestem prairie Andropogon gerardii var. gerardii-Schizachyrium scoparium < 10 
Nebraska sandhills prairie Andropogon gerardii var. paucipilus-Schizachyrium scoparium < 10 
bluestem-Sacahuista prairie Andropogon littoralis-Spartina spartinae < 10 
desert grasslands Bouteloua eriopoda and/or Pleuraphis mutica 5-100 
plains grasslands Bouteloua spp. < 35 
blue grama-needle-and-thread grass-western wheatgrass Bouteloua gracilis-Hesperostipa comata-Pascopyrum smithii < 35 
blue grama-buffalo grass Bouteloua gracilis-Buchloe dactyloides < 35 
grama-galleta steppe Bouteloua gracilis-Pleuraphis jamesii < 35 to < 100 
blue grama-tobosa prairie Bouteloua gracilis-Pleuraphis mutica < 35 to < 100 [214]
sugarberry-America elm-green ash Celtis laevigata-Ulmus americana-Fraxinus pennsylvanica < 35 to 200 [282]
mountain-mahogany-Gambel oak scrub Cercocarpus ledifolius-Quercus gambelii < 35 to < 100 [214]
Atlantic white-cedar Chamaecyparis thyoides 35 to > 200 [282]
northern cordgrass prairie Distichlis spicata-Spartina spp. 1-3 
juniper-oak savanna Juniperus ashei-Quercus virginiana < 35 
Ashe juniper Juniperus ashei < 35 
cedar glades Juniperus virginiana 3-7 
wheatgrass plains grasslands Pascopyrum smithii < 35 
pinyon-juniper Pinus-Juniperus spp. < 35 [214]
jack pine Pinus banksiana <35 to 200 [98]
Mexican pinyon Pinus cembroides 20-70 [193,256]
shortleaf pine Pinus echinata 2-15 
shortleaf pine-oak Pinus echinata-Quercus spp. < 10 [282]
Colorado pinyon Pinus edulis 10-49 [214]
slash pine Pinus elliottii 3-8 
slash pine-hardwood Pinus elliottii-variable < 35 
sand pine Pinus elliottii var. elliottii 25-45 [282]
South Florida slash pine Pinus elliottii var. densa 1-5 
longleaf-slash pine Pinus palustris-P. elliottii 1-4 [198,282]
longleaf pine-scrub oak Pinus palustris-Quercus spp. 6-10 [282]
interior ponderosa pine* Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum 2-30 [25,27,174]
Arizona pine Pinus ponderosa var. arizonica 2-10 [25]
Table Mountain pine Pinus pungens < 35 to 200 [282]
red pine (Great Lakes region) Pinus resinosa 10-200 (10**) [98,113]
red-white-jack pine* Pinus resinosa-P. strobus-P. banksiana 10-300 [98,136]
pitch pine Pinus rigida 6-25 [53,139]
pond pine Pinus serotina 3-8 
loblolly pine Pinus taeda 3-8 
loblolly-shortleaf pine Pinus taeda-P. echinata 10 to < 35 
Virginia pine Pinus virginiana 10 to < 35 
Virginia pine-oak Pinus virginiana-Quercus spp. 10 to < 35 
sycamore-sweetgum-American elm Platanus occidentalis-Liquidambar styraciflua-Ulmus americana < 35 to 200 [282]
galleta-threeawn shrubsteppe Pleuraphis jamesii-Aristida purpurea < 35 to < 100 [214]
mesquite Prosopis glandulosa < 35 to < 100 [190,214]
mesquite-buffalo grass Prosopis glandulosa-Buchloe dactyloides < 35 
Texas savanna Prosopis glandulosa var. glandulosa < 10 [214]
oak-hickory Quercus-Carya spp. < 35[282]
oak-juniper woodland (Southwest) Quercus-Juniperus spp. < 35 to < 200 [214]
northeastern oak-pine Quercus-Pinus spp. 10 to < 35 
southeastern oak-pine Quercus-Pinus spp. < 10 
white oak-black oak-northern red oak Quercus alba-Q. velutina-Q. rubra < 35 
northern pin oak Quercus ellipsoidalis < 35 
bur oak Quercus macrocarpa < 10 [282]
oak savanna Quercus macrocarpa/Andropogon gerardii-Schizachyrium scoparium 2-14 [214,282]
shinnery Quercus mohriana < 35 [214]
chestnut oak Q. prinus 3-8 
northern red oak Quercus rubra 10 to < 35 
post oak-blackjack oak Quercus stellata-Q. marilandica < 10 
black oak Quercus velutina < 35 
live oak Quercus virginiana 10 to< 100 [282]
interior live oak Quercus wislizenii < 35 [25]
cabbage palmetto-slash pine Sabal palmetto-Pinus elliottii < 10 [198,282]
blackland prairie Schizachyrium scoparium-Nassella leucotricha < 10
Fayette prairie Schizachyrium scoparium-Buchloe dactyloides < 10 [282]
little bluestem-grama prairie Schizachyrium scoparium-Bouteloua spp. < 35
southern cordgrass prairie Spartina alterniflora 1-3 [214]
*fire return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the species summary

Tussock graminoid
Ground residual colonizer (on-site, initial community)


SPECIES: Schizachyrium scoparium
Fire removes litter, standing dead plant material, and living leaves and culms from little bluestem. Fire generally top-kills little bluestem and may kill it if fire occurs in hot and/or dry summer whether. Generally, however, little bluestem growth after top-kill equals or exceeds prefire levels [146,299,300]. Fire effects research for little bluestem has focused on effects of fire seasonality and frequency on forage and flowerstalk production increases (or decreases) in the growing seasons following fire rather than on immediate fire effects.

No entry

Fall, winter, and spring burning of little bluestem usually increases productivity; in these phenological stages carbohydrates are stored belowground and little is consumed by fire. Conversely, fire during the growing season is generally detrimental as dry conditions allow hotter fire that burns the crowns more easily, injuring basal buds that are below the soil surface and apical meristems that are located about 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the soil surface [43] and therefore exposed to the fire's flames and heat [300]. Fall, winter, and spring burning are generally beneficial because of increased light penetration to stem and leaf bases, increased soil temperature, and increased availability of nitrogen and minerals [146]. In some cases fall, winter, and spring burning have not increased little bluestem productivity; these examples are usually in xeric habitats or dry years or pertain to late spring fires [299]. 

Fire seasonality: Most prescribed fire in little bluestem habitats is in spring and, to a lesser extent, fall because of the favorable response of little bluestem. Numerous authors have reported increases in flowerstalk abundance (up to 1,200%) following spring burning in tallgrass prairie [79,105,146,168,215]. Late spring fires generally increase flowering the most [138]. These increases are attributed to increased nitrogen availability and to removal of the litter layer around the growing points, which increase the amount of solar radiation received [146,209]. Increases in flowerstalk and herbage production are short-lived if fire is not repeated. Following spring burning in Iowa, flowerstalk production increased dramatically the 1st growing season but returned to normal by the 3rd growing season [105]. In open areas in Minnesota, on a wide range of sites (xeric to mesic, severely disturbed to undisturbed), prescribed burning in early May significantly (p<0.05) increased little bluestem flower production [215]. 

Aboveground biomass generally increases as a result of spring fire, but timing of burning (early or late spring) and soil moisture status thereafter also influence postfire response. Yield increases greater than 100% have been observed the 1st year following late spring burns in North Dakota [164], Minnesota [254], Missouri [168], and Iowa [104]. On several accidentally-burned (April and early May) little bluestem fields in south-central New York, forb biomass decreased 35% and grasses increased 32% in average biomass; most of the increase was from little bluestem [255]. In a Black Hills, South Dakota, ponderosa pine stand with bluestems, western wheatgrass, and bluegrasses (Poa spp.) in the understory, little bluestem responded favorably to spring fire; cover on spring-burned sites was 86% compared to 66% on unburned sites though the difference was not statistically significant (p>0.05). On a site in eastern North Dakota little bluestem responded favorably to early May fire. Production on unburned sites was 387 pounds per acre (439 kg/ha); on burned sites it was 1,124 pounds per acre (1,276 kg/ha) [131]. In the Black Hills a late spring burn (May 27) increased little bluestem yields by 31% [235]. 

Burning later in the spring (just prior to emergence of green shoots) generally increases herbage production. Soil is exposed for the least amount of time following late spring fires; therefore soil moisture levels over the growing season are reduced less after late spring burns than after winter, early spring, or mid-spring burns [12,189]. In the bluestem prairie of the Kansas Flint Hills, a study of the effects of annual burning (for 10 years) in early (March 20), mid- (April 20), and late (May 1) spring found that late spring burning caused the largest increases in little bluestem forage [14]. This was most likely an indirect effect of soil moisture depletion by fire when it occurs in early spring [12]. Similarly burning during dry years sometimes does not allow prompt recovery, particularly in the drier part of little bluestem's range. In western Texas, in the southern mixed-grass prairie, little bluestem productivity decreased up to 42% when burned in dry years and increased up to 81% when burned in wet years. After wet-year burns increases are noticeable for 1 to 2 years [299]. 

One study, after 10 years of annual burning in different seasons in a well-preserved prairie remnant in south-central Wisconsin prairie, found that early spring burning benefited little bluestem more than late-season burning. Compared to unburned control plots, little bluestem herbage increased 40% on late fall burned sites and 125% on sites burned in early spring, but decreased 36% on sites burned in late spring (all significantly different at p<0.01). This unusual response may be in part due to the remarkable recovery of porcupine grass; this species increased 2,200% on late fall-burned plots, 380% on early spring-burned plots, and 800% on late spring-burned plots [137]. A study of long-term annual burning at different dates in the Kansas Flint Hills showed different species compositions arose as a result of season of annual burning. On late-spring burned sites, big bluestem and indiangrass became more prominent; early spring-, and mid-spring-burned pastures were dominated by little bluestem; and perennial forbs and sedges were favored by early spring and winter burning [266].

Little bluestem in the Great Plains historically burned in summer when fire is potentially most detrimental. Late summer fires in Oklahoma resulted in little bluestem suffering 58% basal area reduction on plots with low fuel loading and 95% reduction on plots with high fuel loading. Within 2 months, regrowth, which was minimal, came from surviving tillers, and few new tillers were initiated. [107]. For further information on this study, see Fire Case Studies. A September fire in Nebraska Sandhills prairie did not significantly (p>0.05) reduce total herbage production, but little bluestem was adversely affected. After 1 year little bluestem percent composition was 8% on burned area compared to 47% on unburned; by the 3rd growing season after fire little bluestem had recovered to 46% composition [281]. Late-growing-season (August and September) fire on a disturbed grassland in south-central Oklahoma resulted in greatly reduced little bluestem biomass production. On sites with no burning, little bluestem biomass was 968 pounds per acre (1,110 kg/ha). On sites with 2 consecutive growing season fires, little bluestem was eliminated; on sites with growing season fire in only 1 of 2 years had production of 17.6 pounds per acre (20 kg/ha). Part of little bluestem's negative response to summer fire might be due to competition from forbs; growing season fires generally favor forbs over perennial grass development [106].

Fall and winter burning effects on little bluestem are similar to those described for spring burning. In South Carolina loblolly pine/shortleaf pine-bluestem communities, 1 study found frequent fire in any season increased forage. Annual winter burning had the most positive effect; little bluestem biomass was 23 times more than on unburned sites [175]. A winter prescribed burn in a flatwoods longleaf pine ecosystem was used to reduced to shrub cover and increase grass cover; annual, biennial, and triennial fires all increased the production of dropseeds, pineland threeawn (A. stricta), and bluestems and decreased inkberry (I. glabra) cover. Grass production was significantly increased by fire at any frequency [47]. Different dormant season treatments were applied to a mixed-grass (equal parts of big bluestem, little bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, and sideoats grama) prairie in Gage County, Nebraska. The burned site had complete dead material removal by fire and the greatest regrowth after fire (averaged over 2 years, letters indicate statistical significance at p<0.1) [234]:

treatment standing dead (kg/ha) litter (kg/ha) current-year growth (kg/ha)
shred 0b 2,610ab 2,820b
hay 20b 2,150bc 2,960b
graze October 10b 1,640c 3,190b
graze March 50b 1,610c 2,650b
control 430a 3,490a 2,520b
burn (late April) 0b 340d 4,230a

Secondary fire effects: Fire affects microclimate and soil nutrient status in little bluestem communities; these changes and interactions between them are in large part responsible for little bluestem's favorable response to fire. A multi-treatment experiment on Konza Prairie Research Natural Area showed that increased biomass of little bluestem after fire was due to increased light penetration, increased soil temperature, and increased nitrogen availability. Burned plots had a 151% increase in biomass and 435% increase in flower stalk production; artificially-warmed plots without burning showed a 34% increase in biomass and 78% increase in flower stalks; and nitrogen addition increased biomass 41% and flower stalk production 168%. Increasing surface light intensity by clipping without burning also had a small positive effect on productivity [146]. Several researchers have compared mowing and burning effects on little bluestem in an effort to separate causes of little bluestem's fire response [90,120]. A mid-May burn in a mixed prairie in Wisconsin (warm season grasses included big bluestem, little bluestem, sideoats grama, indiangrass, and switchgrass; cool season grasses included quackgrass, meadow ryegrass (Lolium pratense) and Kentucky bluegrass) increased warm season grass production by 42% as compared to a control. Plots mowed at the same time increased warm season grass production 12%. Cool season grass cover was reduced 78% by burning and 48% by mowing. Little bluestem responded favorably to both treatments but more so to fire, possibly because mowing improves light penetration but does not improve soil nutrient status as does fire [90]. 

It has been speculated that higher nutrient levels following fire alone caused increased growth; Dhillion and others [88], however, note nutrient release with fire is seldom as much as is needed to cause increased growth in fertilization trials. It is now generally accepted that light penetration to the base of culms, increased soil temperature, stimulation of nitrogen fixation, and increased nutrient availability together cause little bluestem's increase after fire [204]. Following spring burning in native bluestem prairie in Missouri, soil surface temperature on burned areas compared to unburned areas averaged 7.1 degrees Fahrenheit (3.9 °C) warmer in April, 11.4 degrees Fahrenheit (6.3 °C) warmer in May, 8.3 degrees Fahrenheit (4.6 °C) warmer in June, and 7.1 degrees Fahrenheit (3.9 °C) warmer in July [168]. Increased soil temperatures promote earlier root growth and activity, and, with increased light penetration, cause little bluestem to start growth earlier in the spring and produce more herbage than plants on nearby unburned areas [82,105,146,209]. Early resumption of spring growth has been observed during the 1st growing season following late spring burns in Iowa [103] and South Dakota [298], an early spring burn in Missouri [168], and an October lightning-caused fire in Nebraska [195]. Earlier and increased growth is most often attributed to increased temperatures caused by solar radiation reaching the soil following removal of standing dead material [82,105,146,209]. Little bluestem's mycorrhizal symbiosis likely has a role in fire response; mycorrhizal colonization has been found to be important in big bluestem's growth response in the 1st month after fire [32]. 

Fire frequency effects: Succession of shrubs and trees or less fire-tolerant grasses can exclude little bluestem in the absence of fire. Frequent fire aids little bluestem by reducing competition from shrubs and trees and reducing litter loading and density of standing dead material of grasses. In the Kansas Flint Hills, Towne and Owensby [266] observed that on plots burned annually 48 out of 56 years before 1982, total herbage production of little bluestem was greatest in 1981 (compared to the previous 56 years), indicating long-term annual burning is beneficial to little bluestem. On the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area little bluestem cover was 23.9% on annually burned plots, 6.6% on plots burned at 4-year intervals, and 0.8% on unburned plots [70]. Another study on the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area found no differences in little bluestem flower stem height, density, or biomass on sites burned in late spring at 1- and 2-year intervals. However, there were significant differences in little bluestem flower stem height, density, and biomass between 2- and 6- year interval late spring fires; total vegetative biomass was not significantly different (p=.28) between 2- and 6-year intervals [147]. In northeastern Kansas annual April fires for 6 years increased little bluestem cover on lowlands from 5.4% to 43.4% and on uplands from 8.7% to 24.0% [4]. On abandoned pastures in Connecticut annually burned for 12 years, little bluestem cover was 12% higher than before burning began; on unburned plots there was a 12% decline. Frequency was 100% on burned areas and 20 to 68% on unburned areas. Shrub species generally resprouted after fire but cover was higher on control plots [204]. 

Frequent fire is perhaps most important for little bluestem when it grows in the canopy of savannas or forests where succession can greatly reduce light penetration to the understory. A study of fire in Illinois barrens (4 years of fire followed by 15 years of monitoring without fire) found that fire reduced woody species dominance and increased prairie species' (little and big bluestem, tall tickseed (Coreopsis tripteris), sleepingplant (Chamaecrista fascicuata), and indiangrass) cover. After 15 years, however, prairie grasses had declined while Indian woodoats (Chasmanthium latifolium), hoary skullcap (Scutellaria incana), and common woodrush (Luzula multiflora) increased. Little bluestem decreased from 61% to 7% cover in 15 years after fire [20]. When fire was returned to the site after 15 years of cessation, little bluestem did not respond favorably (cover declined to 0%), most likely because it is not an effective competitor with woodland species [21]. In the longleaf, slash, and loblolly pine community types of the Southeast, frequent fire's positive effects on little bluestem and total forage production are well-studied [47,141,175]. In a longleaf pine stand near McNeill, Mississippi, with an understory of little bluestem and slender bluestem (S. tenerum), sites burned annually for 10 years had an average green weight forage production of 4,855 pounds per acre (5,517 kg/ha), compared to 2,214 pounds per acre (2,515 kg/ha) on unburned sites. Little bluestem declined without fire though not as much as slender bluestem [141]. 

There have been reports of frequent fire not increasing little bluestem cover or flowering. For example, in a study of clearing with and without burning where conifers and oaks invaded Maryland serpentine grasslands and savannas, little bluestem did not respond to either treatment. Burning was in consecutive years in November, and long-term (only 1 postfire year studied) effects may have been more positive with more burning to further reduce density of Virginia pine [270]. It has been argued that annual burning for a prolonged period would result in nitrogen deficiency and decreased productivity, but a 20 year study on the Konza Prairie found no decline in productivity [282]. 

The extent to which seed contributes to revegetating postburn stands is unknown, but Ehrenreich and Aikman [104] reported seeds from burned stands have higher germination percentages than seeds from nearby unburned stands. Although some ecotypes have small inconspicuous rhizomes, information concerning sprouting via rhizomes following fire is lacking.

These Research or Management Project Summaries provide information on prescribed fire and postfire response of plant community species including little bluestem:

Vegetation change in grasslands and heathlands following multiple spring, summer, and fall prescription fires in Massachusetts
Early postfire effects of a prescribed fire in the southern Appalachians of North Carolina
Response of herbaceous vegetation to winter burning in Texas oak savanna
Fire effects on 3 subtropical invasive plants in Florida and the Caribbean—Natal grass, common bamboo, and white leadtree

Fire is widely used in little bluestem communities to increase forage production for domestic livestock and wildlife (see Management Considerations) and for control of woody species. Specific fire management considerations for different little bluestem communities are provided below; for further information pertaining to historic fire intervals and fire management see Fire Ecology.

In southern New England, prescribed annual spring fire has been used to suppress sprouting shrubs such as black cherry, sweet birch, and red maple in favor of little bluestem-dominated openings, though intervals up to 5 years will also control shrubs and trees in this habitat type [178,255]. For New Jersey pitch pine barrens where little bluestem is dominant and encroachment has not been very great, fire at 8- to 12-year intervals over decades will probably maintain low density stands [178]. Fire management has sought to restore pine savannas and forests in the Southeast where they have been compromised by decline in fire frequency, urbanization, agricultural use, and conversion to loblolly pine plantations [181]. Frequent fire is generally required to maintain low tree density in oak savannas of the central United States. A study of annual, periodic (5-year fire interval), and no prescribed burning in an oak forest on the southeastern part of the Highland Rim, Tennessee, found that without burning little bluestem was completely shaded out in about 8 years [86]. Peterson and Reich [216] had similar findings in a northern pin oak savanna restoration study in Minnesota. Based on their findings, the authors recommended a prescribed fire regime of 3 fires per decade to maintain open stands. To balance sapling control with the need for limited oak recruitment, occasional fire exclusion is recommended. 

Former savannas that now have extensive canopy development may be difficult to restore with fire alone. If grass species cover has declined during canopy closure, as is commonly the case, fine fuel amounts are not sufficient for surface fire with enough heat to kill oaks. Bowles and McBride [41] recommend experimenting with cutting or girdling of subcanopy oaks for thinning and subsequent increase of grasses. These techniques have been used to reduce the cover of eastern redcedar where it has expanded and increased in prairies and savannas [210]. Though there have been cases where eastern redcedar is completely eliminated by a single fire, typically mortality is not widespread once extensive stands have developed [20,210].

Fire has also been used to reduce brushy species like honey mesquite and Ashe and redberry junipers (J. erythrocarpa) where they have encroached in dry grasslands. Where honey mesquite invades grasslands prescribed fire may be used to kill seedlings and leave larger trees; abundant sprouting makes complete removal unfeasible [214]. Ashe juniper invasion and increase on little bluestem grasslands in Texas have been reduced with prescribed fire, but about 880 pounds per acre (1,000 kg/ha) of fuel is required to sustain fire in these communities. Intensive methods like chaining or dozing are required for elimination of Ashe and redberry junipers, but these techniques result in a greater reduction of cover; bare ground becomes more exposed and less desirable species are prominent for several years after fire. Redberry juniper is killed by fire when young because the meristem is aboveground, while older trees' sprouting buds are generally protected from fire in 7 to 20 years by soil and plant litter accumulation. A 7- to 10-year fire interval has been recommended where soils are deep and litter accumulation is rapid, and a 15- to 20-year interval has been recommended on shallow soil sites. Little bluestem regrowth is critical to control of juniper; burning with high soil moisture allows optimal grass recovery in these semiarid lands [290].


SPECIES: Schizachyrium scoparium
Steinberg, Peter D., compiler. 2002. Effects of late summer fire in a tallgrass Oklahoma prairie on little bluestem. In: Schizachyrium scoparium. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: /database/feis/ [ ].

Ewing, A. L.; Engle, D. M. 1988. Effects of late summer fire on tallgrass prairie microclimate and community composition. The American Midland Naturalist. 120(1): 212-223. [107].


Two study sites were located in the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station's Agronomy Research Range near Stillwater.

Warm season grasses including big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii var. gerardii), indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) dominated the tallgrass prairie studied. Mid-grasses present were little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). 

Fire was prescribed in early September during active growth.

Two pairs of plots (burned and control) were established on upland sites. The pairs differed in grazing history and litter accumulation. The low fuel site (3,945 pounds per acre (4,430 kg/ha)) had been moderately grazed for several years, and the high fuel site (9,192 pounds per acre (10,320 kg/ha)) had grazing exclusion for 3 years.

Average annual precipitation in the area is 33 inches (831 mm); growing season precipitation preceding prescribed fire was 17% above average.

Fire was prescribed on September 5 in hot weather: 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37 °C), low relative humidity (36%), and wind gusts up to 24 miles per hour (40 km/h). Fire severity was assessed at 3 heights by calculating degree seconds (in degrees C) which is based on the time the temperature remains more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 °C) above the pre- and postfire ambient temperatures. Measured this way, fire was approximately 4 times more severe at the soil surface on the high fuel plot compared to the low fuel plot; at other heights the difference was even greater. Means and standard errors are presented below:

  low fuel site (°C with standard errors) high fuel site (°C with standard errors)
degree seconds at soil surface  10,400 (1,900) 43,600 (3,200)
degree seconds 15 cm above surface 6,300 (40) 29,600 (2,100)
degree seconds 30 cm above surface 3,900 (180) 20,300 (1,400)

Immediate effects on tiller density (number per m2) and basal area (cm2/m2) are presented below:

  low fuel high fuel
before burn (8/15) after burn (10/22) before burn (8/15) after burn (10/22)
tiller density of big bluestem 23 45 89 17****
tiller density of all tallgrasses* 70 98 162 74****
basal area of little bluestem 213 90*** 274 14****
basal area of all mid-grasses** 268 141**** 274 14****
*tallgrasses include big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass 
**mid-grasses include little bluestem and sideoats grama
***indicates before and after burn means are significantly different (p<0.05)
****indicates before and after burn means are significantly different (p<0.01)

This late summer fire resulted in a nearly complete combustion of biomass, with plots generally having blackened and bare soil with a dusting of ash. Regrowth following the fire was primarily from surviving tillers; few new tillers were initiated on either burned plot. Regrowth was minimal on the low fuel plot and very slight on the high fuel plot. Basal area was significantly reduced by both fires. A 58% reduction in basal area occurred on the low fuel plot, and a 95% reduction in basal area occurred on the high fuel plot. The following growing season, peak biomass production of little bluestem on the low fuel plot showed no significant decrease compared to the unburned low fuel plot. However biomass production on the burned high fuel plot was only 5% of that on the unburned high fuel plot. This may be due to water stress as the high fuel burned plot experienced some of the greatest water deficits in the year following fire. 

During the growing season following fire, effects of fire were still evident on high fuel plots where biomass production of little bluestem was much lower than on low fuel plots. There was no significant reduction in biomass of little bluestem on low fuel plots; in fact, on the burned low fuel plots biomass in August was higher than on unburned plots, though the difference was not significant. Biomass data (g/m2) summarized below show the negative impact on little bluestem but also show that total biomass production was not affected by burning during the previous summer: 

  June 18 (9.5 months after fire) August 26 (1 year after fire)
low fuel high fuel low fuel high fuel
unburned burned unburned burned unburned burned unburned burned
tallgrassesa  10 16 118 82 40 30 153 106
little bluestem 16 13 17* 1 36 56 25* 1
other perennial grassesb  168* 116 97 53 271 254 56 50
cool season annual grassesc 32** 142 8 1 8** 32 1 0
herbaceous dicotsd 48* 23 93** 254 32 50 130 153
total 278 310 333 391 387 422 365 310
*indicates row means significantly different at p<0.05
** indicates means different at p<0.01
a includes big bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass
b includes sideoats grama, blue grama (B. gracilis), hairy grama (B. hirsuta), silver bluestem (Bothriochloa saccharoides), and rough dropseed (Sporobolous asper)
c includes bromes (Bromus spp.)
d includes cuman ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya) and prairie broomweed (Xanthocephalum dracunculoides)

During the summer little bluestem has growing points which are not as well protected as those of warm-season rhizomatous grasses. This late summer fire demonstrates little bluestem may be damaged or killed by severe fires during the summer particularly when fuel loads are high. Since little bluestem elevates a high proportion of its apical meristems above the ground surface, where they are vulnerable to a fire's flames and heat, it is sensitive to summer burning. This study also showed that, because other grass species are better adapted to summer fire, total biomass production from the community may not be influenced by summer fire as negatively as that of little bluestem.


SPECIES: Schizachyrium scoparium
Little bluestem provides food and cover for many important upland game bird species. The lesser prairie chicken uses sand sage prairie and sand shinnery oak communities [24]. Little bluestem seeds are of particular value to this species as well as for songbirds and sharp-tailed grouse [156]. Northern bobwhites, ring-necked pheasants, and scaled quail use less wooded areas (<25% cover) on the High and Rolling Plains of Texas where sideoats grama and little bluestem are important sources of food [52]. Little bluestem savannas of the central United States are important to the red-headed woodpecker, Baltimore oriole, eastern kingbird, vesper sparrow, field sparrow, lark sparrow, brown thrasher, American goldfinch, and brown-headed cowbird [84].

Little bluestem communities in the Great Plains are used by bison (where bison have been reintroduced), particularly prairies that are moderately grazed by prairie dogs or frequently burned. On Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, bison use of bluestem prairie that was burned increased 12-fold. Bison's preference for burned areas and moderately grazed areas appears to be a response to quality of forage rather than quantity [72]. In the same area prairie dog grazing reduces dominance of little bluestem and increases forb and grass diversity; these grazed communities are preferred by bison when unburned [73]. Fire reduced bison use of prairie dog-grazed areas 30 to 63% [74]. A study of the Konza Prairie found bison preferred burned areas, particularly those burned at more frequent intervals (1-year, 2-year, 4-year, and 20-year fire intervals were examined). During spring (April 1 to June 30) the preference was greatest: use was 3 times greater on burned areas compared to unburned areas [278]. 

Little bluestem is an important source of forage for domestic livestock. Little bluestem yields are generally lower than those of associated grasses, but forage production remains constant, showing little or no decline from year to year except under severe drought conditions [121,221,294]. Little bluestem is an important component of upland hay, which is of good quality if cut early [152,239]. In the Great Plains tallgrass prairie, estimated forage production historically ranged from 1.1 to 3.4 tons per acre (2.5-7.6 t/ha) [282]. More recent measurements of forage production fall within this range; some reports of forage production across little bluestem's range are reported below: 

site forage production
Tallgrass Prairie Preserve (Oklahoma) 1,858 pounds per acre on savannas with shallow loam to 4,600 pounds per acre on deeper soils  
Niobrara Valley Preserve (Nebraska) 1,410 to 2,300 pounds per acre [38]
Minnesota and North Dakota (Red River Valley) 4,210 pounds per acre to 3,355 pounds per acre
Manitoba  (Red River Valley) 2,197 pounds per acre [221]
Limestone Prairie of Texas ("good" condition range) 2,500 to 3,300 pounds per acre
Limestone Prairie of Texas ("excellent" condition range with more little bluestem cover) 3,500 to 4,000 pounds per acre [224

Palatability/nutritional value: Little bluestem is highly palatable to most livestock during the plant's early growth period. Seed stalks, which appear by mid-summer, are in most areas avoided by livestock, but heavy use of immature inflorescences has been reported for Texas [101]. Animals continue to graze basal leaves until plants reach maturity [140,194,251]. During the fall and winter months plants are grazed only after more palatable species have been utilized [118,148]. In southern latitudes, utilization may not be limited by season. Dyksterhuis [101] reported cattle consume little bluestem year-round in Texas. The mild climate allows the plant to remain active throughout the year. In December and January, some bluish-green new shoots occur around the edges of little bluestem bunches and in the interior where they are protected by standing dead culms. As the season advances, cattle selectively consume only the green leaves from the dense interior. 

Stage of maturity greatly influences the nutritive value of little bluestem. During spring and summer, this grass provides medium- to high-quality forage, but as the season advances, protein and phosphorus levels drop and become inadequate for livestock by mid-summer [129,233,294]. In the Ozarks, protein content peaks in May at about 11% (of dry weight) and declines to under 5% over the summer; calcium content ranges from 0.3% to 0.6%, peaking in September and October. Phosphorus ranges from about 0.05% to 0.4% with a peak in May and June; fiber content is variable around 30%. Burnt plots in the Ozarks had slightly higher nutrient (protein, calcium, phosphorus) contents except fiber was slightly lower [61]; increases in these nutrients as a result of burning have also been observed in longleaf pine stands [141,167]. In vitro dry matter digestion (IVDMD) is low by mid-summer, with levels between 52% and 58% often reported [58,150,202,294]. Little bluestem hay is best if cut in early to mid-summer before nutritive quality decreases (July 1 to July 15 in Kansas) [152,212]. Changes in physical traits and chemical composition of little bluestem during the growing season in the Nebraska Sandhills have been summarized below (means and standard errors); these data show the decline in IVDMD and protein as biomass peaks in October [206]:

  June July August October
tiller length (cm) 18 (1) 20 (1) 23 (3) 26 (2)
tiller weight (g) 0.1 (0.01) 0.2 (0.02) 0.2 (0.02) 0.3 (0.04)
protein (%) 9.8 (0.4) 8.1 (0.8) 6.9 (0.9) 3.6 (0.6)
in vitro dry-matter digestibility 62 (2) 53 (3) 46 (4) 32 (3)
cell wall (%) 68 (2) 68 (1) 69 (1) 68 (1)
hemicellulose (%) 30 (1) 29 (2) 28 (1) 23 (1)
acid detergent fiber (%) 38 (1) 39 (1) 41 (0.6) 45 (0.4)
ash (%) 3.1 (0.3) 3.4 (0.3) 4.4 (0.2) 6.1 (0.2)
lignin (%) 4.3 (0.1) 4.2 (0.3) 4.6 (0.3) 5.7 (0.1)
total nonstructural carbohydrates (mg/g) 94 (4) 96 (5) 95 (4) 94 (19)
chlorophyll (mg/g) 1.8 (0.3) 1.7 (0.2) 1.6 (0.2) 1.1 (0.4)

Little bluestem is not as nutritious as associated species such as sand bluestem, crested wheatgrass, prairie sandreed, side-oats grama, and blue grama [150,202,294]. Protein content of little bluestem is only about one-half that of blue grama at the same stage of growth [148].  

Cover value: Little bluestem provides nesting habitat and cover for bobwhite quail, northern bobwhites, lesser prairie chickens, Montezuma quail, sharp-tailed grouse, and other upland game birds [68,121,156,208,229,239]. In open pine stands in the Southeast, bobwhite quail use bluestem grasses for nesting, particularly sites burned within a year [134]. In western Oklahoma, northern bobwhites use grasslands dominated by little bluestem [267]. In Missouri, little bluestem, due to its bunch-type growth habit, provides optimum shelter for nesting prairie chickens [68]. Reductions in cover of bluestems and dropseeds that occur with drought have caused populations to decline as nesting cover is reduced [24]. In Oklahoma and Nebraska, little bluestem is one of the principal grasses in which prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse nest [156,239]. The Montezuma quail depends on the cover of little bluestem (as well as threeawns and sideoats grama) on the Edwards Plateau of Texas, particularly on grazed sites [8]. Little bluestem is an important nesting cover for sharp-tailed grouse in the Great Plains [239]. The degree to which little bluestem provides environmental protection for other wildlife species has been rated as follows [52,95,156,182]: 

  Kansas Montana North Dakota Oklahoma Texas Utah Wyoming
small mammals --- fair good --- --- good fair
small nongame birds good fair good --- --- fair fair
upland game birds good good good good good fair fair
waterfowl --- fair fair --- --- poor poor

Little bluestem has been used extensively in prairie restoration projects [15,239], to establish prairie vegetation along highways [76,207], and to restore mine spoils [228]. In prairie restoration projects, little bluestem is often used in seed mixes with big bluestem, indiangrass, little bluestem, sideoats grama, and switchgrass [81]. Alternatively, sod cutters have been used for removal and transplanting of bluestem prairie from sites that are to be developed [246]. Little bluestem cultivars available for use in revegetating disturbed areas and for range seeding are described below [153,186,201,202]; further guidelines for cultivar selection, seeding rates, and planting procedures are available in the literature [90,223,291]. 

cultivar origin and uses
Aldous Originally from the Flint Hills of Kansas, it is recommended for seeding in Kansas and Nebraska. Features include moderately late maturity, leafiness, and rust resistance.
Blaze Originally from Nebraska, it is recommended for range seeding, critical area stabilization, and native landscaping in Kansas and Nebraska. This is a late-maturing cultivar.
Camper Originally from Nebraska and recommended for use there. It is relatively late maturing.
Cimarron Originally from seed collected from western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, and the Oklahoma panhandle.
Pastura Originally near Rowe and Pecos, New Mexico, it is adapted for range plantings in light- to medium-textured soils in the foothills and plains of central and eastern New Mexico and eastern Colorado.

Little bluestem has been used for reclamation (or, in some cases, to control erosion) on mine spoils throughout its range [228,230]. It has been used successfully to reclaim mine spoils in Montana. Organic matter content of the spoil was a key factor affecting little bluestem establishment, with best performance when spoils were covered with 8 inches (20 cm) of topsoil [228]. Good results for little bluestem establishment on mine spoils have been obtained by amending soil with sewage sludge [230]. Establishing test plots to see if plants will grow under local conditions is recommended. 

Little bluestem and other native grasses and forbs have been used to develop small prairie plantings for use in residential landscaping [92].

Grazing: When moderately grazed little bluestem occurs in greater density with decreased individual basal area; tiller production (tillers per unit area) increases except when grazing is severe [60]. Little bluestem plants in Kansas subjected to long-term grazing by cattle had shorter and narrower leaf blades and tillers of lower weights than plants from ungrazed populations [63]. In the true prairie, where little bluestem occurs with tall warm-season grasses, it is an increaser [14,155,251]; farther west, and on more xeric sites, it is considered a decreaser [140]. For example, in south-central Nebraska loess hills little bluestem, big bluestem, sideoats grama, needle-and-thread grass, western wheatgrass, blue grama and buffalo grass are climax, and overgrazing leads to dominance of buffalo grass and blue grama [59,118,158,265]. Little bluestem tends to decrease under spring-summer grazing and increase under fall-winter grazing [251]. Continuous and deferred rotation grazing systems have both been used effectively. In Kansas, vigorous stands were maintained from season to season with continuous, moderate grazing which left 40 to 60% of the current year's growth ungrazed at the end of the season [172]. A deferred grazing system for the tallgrass prairie of Kansas includes intensive early stocking with twice the recommended stocking density for the 1st half of the growing season and no grazing during the 2nd half of the season. This allows little bluestem forage to regrow and replenish carbohydrate reserves [213]. 

Overgrazing can increase rates of invasion of shrubs such as sand shinnery oak, sand sagebrush, soapweed yucca (Y. glauca), honey mesquite, eastern redcedar, Ashe juniper, and redberry juniper [48,112,242,276,282]. Kentucky bluegrass and other cool season grasses have increased in little bluestem's eastern habitats as a result of heavy grazing in the early 1900s [257].

Early in settlement, cattlemen burned on a rotation so cattle could always access recently burned little bluestem range [167]. The practice has continued as a way of increasing little bluestem and other warm-season grass in warm-season pastures or rangelands infested with undesirable cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass [12,14,44,164,168]. Burning is also useful to increase little bluestem's protein, phosphorus, and calcium contents in early season; this has been observed in longleaf pine stands, oak savannas, and tallgrass prairies [66,141,167,244]. Because late spring headfires produce more forage than backfires, Bidwell and others [37] recommend this practice where tallgrass is grazed. Spring burning has the additional benefit of reducing lone star tick populations; these parasites can reduce cattle weight gains [77].

Upland game bird habitat: Grazing systems that maintain a mosaic of habitats (shrub thickets, prairie containing little bluestem, and sparse shrub cover) are recommended for northern bobwhite, lesser prairie chickens, and other game birds of shinnery and sand sagebrush types [24,83,267]. Rest rotation or moderate stocking rates may be useful as well as late winter or early spring fire every 3 or 4 years in up to 33% of the area [24,267]. Protecting 20-acre patches of sand sagebrush or shinnery oak allows for nesting cover and feeding on acorns, and no-till or minimum-till cultivation allows winter feeding on grainfields. Also recommended is removal of exotic grasses in favor of native warm season species and caution with use of herbicides and insecticides as these may harm insect populations on which game birds depend [24]. 

Oak savanna restoration in the central United States improves forage production for deer as well as habitat for the red-headed woodpecker, Baltimore oriole, eastern kingbird, vesper sparrow, field sparrow, lark sparrow, brown thrasher, American goldfinch, and brown-headed cowbird. Conversion of late successional oak forests to savannas may reduce insectivorous bird species in the canopy but increases populations of bark-feeding insectivores. Restoration also increases omnivorous bird species diversity and abundance [84]. As in many ecosystems, a mosaic of vegetation types (closed-canopy oak forest, savanna, and prairie) is necessary for the survival of small mammals and insect pollinators. For this reason, Wade and others [282] recommend having some "randomness" in frequency of applied fire. 

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