Big Bluestem, a plant with a story to tell

Jerry Apps
When Thomas Stewart homesteaded Jerry Apps' Roshara farm in 1867, he was greeted by Big Bluestem waving in the wind.

When the pioneers arrived in central and southwestern Wisconsin, many of them were greeted by vast acreages of Big Bluestem grass. It would often grow over six feet tall and wave in the wind creating a sight similar to waves on the ocean. 

Indeed, the first pioneers, who arrived in the Midwest with covered wagons pulled by teams of oxen, called their wagons prairie schooners, after the sailing vessels that plied the oceans.

Big Bluestem (Andropagon gerardii) is a native perennial grass. It is leafy at its base, with a few leaves along its stem. The seed heads form into three spikelets, which gives the grass its popular name, “turkey foot.”

When Thomas Stewart homesteaded my Roshara farm in 1867, he was greeted by Big Bluestem waving in the wind. I have read stories of how he hired a neighbor, with a team of oxen and a huge breaking plow to turn under this tall growing grass, which had a root system nearly as deep as the grass grew above ground.

On steep hillsides that Stewart could not plow, the Big Bluestem continued to grow—to this day. It is also slowly expanding in the prairie we are restoring at Roshara. Because of its vast root system, it will grow on sandy soils, and also because of its deep roots, it is not much bothered by dry weather, something that is fairly common in our part of Waushara County.

As it grows in spring and summer, it has a blueish stem. In fall the stems turn a reddish brown.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: Big Bluestem, a plant with a story to tell.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to