Native Son

Overdue for some of that real living that I’ve been putting off for a few months now, I threw my bag in the truck and headed west. About the time I was easing into the Panhandle town of Turkey, Texas (hometown of the one and only Bob Wills), I saw a sign for Caprock Canyons State Park. Sounded good, so after a few enchiladas and a cold soda, I took that gently winding road out of town toward the park.

At a place like Caprock Canyons, you can’t help but renew your sense of the majestic West. Rugged canyon walls, sculpted red boulders, and those wonderful bands of white crystal running through the rock everywhere that make the imagination soar like the red-tailed hawks careening above.

Yet, as exotic and complex as the landscape was, I felt amazingly at home. Something familiar was all around me, and I laughed out loud when I realized what it was.

The short grass prairie that rolled across the swells and hills was loaded with little bluestem. Long a favorite of prairie people, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is arguably the most versatile native ornamental grass the Lone Star State has to offer. As you might guess, the leaves and stems have a bluish cast to them, creating a haze effect on the prairie and a welcome contrast of soft color in gardens. Most of the time it’s a fairly short grass, creating a lovely, airy tuft of gently curling foliage about 10 inches tall. Out of this ball of leaves arise a few to somtimes 20 slender stems, each topped with a graceful inflorescence. Genetics and location play a role in the ultimate height of these flower stems, which can range from about 12 inches in a dry year on an escarpment prairie to 20 inches or more with garden cultivation.

In spite of little bluestem’s toughness and wide native range (Massachusetts west to Ontario, south to Florida and New Mexico), it is completely at home in formal gardens. Its compact size and neat growth habit allow it to be used in perennial beds, borders, as a backdrop for annuals, or, my personal favorite, in containers. (I even used little bluestem in the formal containers at the front door of Chandor Gardens.)

Perhaps the best attribute of little bluestem is not its lovely pale blue summer color, but the rich coppery tones that it turns in the fall and winter. Yes, little bluestem is “that” grass – the backlit beauty that knocks your socks off during your wintertime drives past field and pasture.

What? Been awhile since you’ve taken a Texas road trip? Join me next month and I’ll tell you about another beautiful Texas native plant.

About the author: Steven L. Chamblee is Chief Horticulturist at Chandor Garden in Weatherford. He is also a contributing editor to Neil Sperry’s GARDENS Magazine, where his writing appears each issue. For more information, visit

Come out to Chandor Gardens and see us sometime. Just take I-20 west to exit 409, hang a right, go 2.1 miles and hang a left on Lee Avenue . Head straight 12 blocks and you’re driving in the gates.

Call 817-361-1700 to let us know you’re coming and we’ll light the incense and show you around. You can always go to for a picture tour and more information.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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