Native Prairie

Native prairie at Waubay NWR with grasses and colorful flowers. Photo by L. Hubers/USFWS

 “To one unaccustomed to it, there is something inexpressibly lonely in the solitude of the prairie…” Washington Irving

Prairie is not like the mountains. It is not obvious in its beauty. It is subtle but it is beautiful all the same. Spend some time exploring the prairie and you will be surprised.

It is wide open and windy. One can watch a storm rolling in for miles. There is no place to hide from the sun except under the constantly moving cloud shadows. Oh, but it is beautiful.

The Grass Is Not Always Green

One must only look closer. Prairie is green but it is not just one shade of green or one type of grass. This is not your lawn. There can be many types of grasses with different growth forms, heights, and colors. Some will bloom in the spring and others not until summer. During the summer they may only show subtle differences in color - a lighter green versus a blue-green. Come fall the differences can be amazing - the deep purple of big bluestem, the pink of little bluestem, the gold of Indiangrass.  

close up of native grasses and flowers/ Photo by L. Hubers/USFWS

And then there are the flowers. Every day, every season brings another flower, another color in view. The earliest is the pasqueflower, pale purple and delicate, sometimes even blooming among the few patches of snow yet to melt.  The short flowers will bloom first, before the grasses have a chance to shade them out.  Flowers with wonderful names like pussytoes, chickweed, blue-eyed grass, and lousewort.  As the grasses grow taller the flowers must compete, getting taller as the weather warms. Late spring and early summer bring hoary puccoon, bastard toadflax, meadow anemone, and spiderwort. Summer brings out the real beauties: blazingstar, Maximillian sunflower, the misnamed wood lily, and the rare great blue lobelia. Fall ends mostly in hues of yellow (goldenrods) and purple (asters).   

Prairie is prairie because of the harsh conditions under which it develops. Trees could not survive the frequent droughts, wildfires, or the periodic intense grazing incurred by huge roaming herds of bison. But grasses grow from the ground up - not from the tips as trees grow - and they easily bounce back from these events. Most of a grass' biomass is also underground.   Roots can make up to 90% of the grass plant's weight, contrary to the portion that is above ground.  These roots store nutrients, make space for water infiltration, and hold massive amounts of soil. Soil that is literally blown away once the grass is removed or plowed up.   

 Refuge NE 194x116 This part of South Dakota was once part of the Tallgrass Prairie, so named because the dominant grasses like big bluestem, switchgrass, and Indiangrass can grow from 3 to 7 feet tall. Today less than 1% of the Tallgrass Prairie still exists. As once part of a vast grassland ecosystem that covered the center of the nation, these prairies are now fragmented and declining, in numbers and health.  

Bigger is Better

Prairies are healthiest when they are big. Prairie wildlife have evolved with room to move to find food and mates, to lay eggs or dig burrows, to see predators from afar. Fragments can’t provide the same resources for breeding, nutrition, or cover, especially when they are compromised by invasive species. Non-native species like Kentucky bluegrass or smooth brome were planted for forage and have escaped from haylands into native prairies. These grasses grow differently and tend to be more aggressive than native species. What was once a prairie with hundreds of species of flowers and grasses becomes much less. When fire or grazing is reduced, trees take over. Invasive flowers and weeds like Queen Anne’s lace or leafy spurge do their own kind of damage, but often results in less diversity. Not only in plants but birds, bees, butterflies, and many other parts we may not be entirely aware of.

As more and more grasslands disappear or become smaller to make way for crops, roads, or industry, we lose a beautiful and intricate part of our natural heritage. Take time to visit a prairie and feel the jagged edge of prairie cordgrass, listen for bobolinks twanging overhead, watch a regal fritillary flutter from flower to flower, taste the lemony tang of the violet wood sorrel, smell the heady scent of showy milkweed. Do it now – before it is gone.