Plant of the Week: Big Bluestem

The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today. This week we share one of our gardeners' current favorites with you.

In the Chelsea Grasslands in mid-to-late summer, Andropogon gerardii plays an essential role in creating the naturalistic aesthetic for which the High Line is known. You may have encountered this grass at pit stops on long car trips, as it often grows in vacant lots and on roadside shoulders across the United States. This Andropogon is the tallest member of the grouping of grass species known as the Big Four, which typify central North American tallgrass prairies (two of the others, Panicum virgatum and Schizachryium scoparium, can also be found on the High Line), and stands up to 8 feet tall. In its most prolific era in North America, a million of its blue-green stems waving together in the breeze must have resembled a rippling sea. Its wine-red seedhead branches into three parts, with delicate yellow flowers hanging in bell-like pairs – visible to sharp eyes – on many of the stems bowing more deeply over the High Line.

Big Bluestem tends to grow aggressively when well established in an undisturbed location, and grows most upright in the full sun and relatively nutrient-poor soil of its native prairie environs. It provides cover, nesting sites, and seeds for at least 24 species of songbird, including Sedge Wrens, Western Meadowlarks, and many types of sparrows. Overgrazing by cattle has reduced the population of this once abundant grass to small patches across the central United States; it's so adored by its bovine nemeses that it's known to have been called "ice cream for cows" by cattle ranchers. The rise of cattle farming and lengthened grazing seasons has caused serious problems for grasses that, like Andropogon, were originally adapted to the seasonal grazing of migratory bison.

As an ornamental planting, Big Bluestem makes an excellent focal point for a naturalistic garden, lush in summer and taking on a copper color that lasts through the fall and winter. Deep roots in established specimens give it great drought tolerance and make it an asset in erosion control. The NYC Parks Department's Native Species Planting Guide recommends its use as an invasive species control for clearings in oak-dominated forests and in shrub-land areas with strong wildlife presence. Examples of both these types of plant communities can be found Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx.

Provide plenty of moisture in young plants, which need time to establish fibrous roots, but taper off watering for older plants, which become quite drought-tolerant. Too much shade and fertilizer can cause stems to droop. Moderately tolerant of acidity. Growth pattern is to spread outward from center, with new growth occurring around the outside and center dying back; clumps from newer outer growth can be divided in early summer, and center can be removed.

Chelsea Grasslands

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects – become a member of the High Line today!

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