Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem)

Plant Info
Also known as: Turkey-foot
Family:Poaceae (Grass)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; average to dry soil; plains, prairies, railroads, roadsides, open woods
Fruiting season:July - August
Plant height:2 to 7 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACU MW: FAC NCNE: FACU
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Cluster type: spike

[photo of flowering spikes] 2 to 6 slender, finger-like spikes clustered at the top of the stem and at the tips of any branches in the upper plant. Spikes are 2 to 4 inches long and mostly ascending, usually purplish, sometimes yellowish.

[photo of flowers] Spikelets (flower clusters) are in pairs all along the spike; 1 stalkless, awned spikelet containing a single fertile, perfect flower (both male and female parts) and usually 1 stalked spikelet containing a single male flower, or sometimes 1 sterile spikelet with no flower, just the stalk. The glumes (pair of bracts at the base of a spikelet) are about 3/8 inch long and equal in length, narrowly lance-elliptic with a sharply pointed tip. The lemma (bract at the base of a flower) of the fertile flower has a ½ to ¾-inch long awn that is twisted and bent near its base. Spikelet stalks are usually densely covered in fine hairs that are initially appressed but spread out as the spikelets mature.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of stem leaf] Leaves are mostly crowded on the lower stem with few in the upper plant. Leaves are mostly flat, green to blue-green, up to 18 inches long and to ½ inch wide, becoming shorter as they ascend the stem. The upper surface is rough textured, often with long, white, spreading hairs near the base.

[photo of sheath, ligule and node] The sheath is open, forming a distinct “V” at the front. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is white to brownish and up to 2.5 mm long. Nodes are hairless and purplish. The culm (stem) is erect, hairless, few branched and often bluish to purple with a waxy bloom. Plants can create large clumps from short rhizomes.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of mature spikelets] The spikelets spread out some as they mature, the hairs on the stalks spreading as well, the entire spikelet eventually dropping off. The seed that develops in the fertile spikelet is golden brown, narrowly elliptical, and nearly as long as the spikelet.


Big Bluestem is one of the iconic prairie grasses that once covered a large portion of Minnesota. It's easy to ID from the finger-like array of spikes at the tips of the tall stems.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Anoka, Pope and Ramsey counties. Other photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: linda - Shooting Star Prairie SNA
on: 2015-08-22 09:40:01

Found on guided tour of this area on 8-8-15.

Posted by: Margot - Burnsville
on: 2015-09-07 15:30:43

I have planted BBS in a row, and there are see heds low to the ground. I'm not sure if they are the first seed head or some sinister grass!

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2015-09-07 15:37:51

Margot, just keep your eye on it. The tall prairie grasses don't like to stay in neat rows and can spread quite a bit. It may turn out to be more than you bargained for, but annual thinning may keep it in check.

Posted by: L. Hoffer - Bloomington
on: 2019-05-05 13:47:31

I have harvested some seeds last fall in the park near me as this year I wanted to create a 700+ sq. ft. Native species garden. Do the seeds need to be exposed to a period of cold before they will germinate?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2019-05-05 19:20:08

I believe grasses germinate the same year they're planted. Stratification is primarily for forbs due to the hard shell on the seed, which grasses generally lack.

Posted by: Andy - Minneapolis
on: 2022-07-04 18:40:11

Planted it in my yard two years ago. It grew to around 7ft tall on sandy soil with partial sun and watering. It's about 2ft tall right now amidst a dry summer (early July 2022) with no watering--though still very green. This last winter, wild rabbits made a nest in it--and so, this Spring, there were wild baby bunnies running/hiding around my yard! Pretty great. Aside from drawing in wildlife and a variety of insects, it's a beautiful tall grass to watch sway in the wind.

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