Prairie Habitat Recovery

by Danny Barron

The definition of a prairie is a grassland habitat with a wide variety of plant life, which in turn provides cover and food for a wide variety of animal life.

Prairies come in a variety of types, ranging from wet, mesic (seasonally wet), and dry. The rainfall amount affect the type of vegetation cover from tall grass to mixed and short grass prairies. Mesic tall grass prairies are typically the most diverse and productive. Tall grass prairie is very consistent biologically across the continent, you will find purple coneflowers growing natively from New York to Oklahoma and Nebraska. In the start of this article, let us concentrate on grasses, for they truly are the backbone of the prairie. Most prairie plants (but not all) are warm season and are dormant from late fall through mid-spring. This is probably an adaptation to the seasonal burning of the prairie when the grasses are dry (late summer ->early spring).

Akin to prairie is a savannah, which is a mixed grass land with copses of trees and/or shrubbery intermixed. Prairies are typically maintained as grassland by the force of fire. The fires that formed the North American prairies were partially set by late season lightning and partially by native Americans intentionally setting fire to maintain the habitat. If prairies are denied the cleansing fire, then they typically progress through savannah and scrub to forest, if the moisture and soil depth permit.

More than ¼ of the North American continent was prairie at the time the first white settlers gazed upon the land. That amount has dwindled to less than 1% of the original total. The land has been utilized for agriculture, typically production of cereal monocultures and the remaining uncultivated segments have mostly evolved into scrub and forest as man has controlled the fires that historically progressed through the prairie every few years. The isolated remnants of prairie are proving insufficient to maintain bio-diversity and habitat for animals that are adapted to them.

I write this article after 11 years of prairie recovery myself. My area gives me mesic tallgrass and a drier mixed grass/savannah area in which to attempt to reintroduce different species.

Conventional wisdom advocates clearing the land of competitive species (such as invasive turfgrasses, like bermuda-grass, fescue, and bluegrass). Methods suggested depend upon the species being removed. For fescue and bluegrass, as cool season grasses, control may be able to be gained by burning the area repetitively (over a couple of years) right as the grasses are in flower and have the lowest reserves of food of any point in their yearly cycle. Fire can also be used to eradicate most woody trees and shrubs. For Bermuda, soil fumigation is a possible recommended control.

If you seed your prairie, it is recommended that you do minimal disturbance of the soil. Not only does tilling encourage erosion, but you expose a new weed crop to the light, and you will get a weed crop.

Care for young plants by rouging any aggressive weeds that might shade them…but be sure of what you’re rouging. Perennial prairie plants (both grasses and forbs) tend to grow slowly and it may be a few years before you see what the mature plant looks like. It will have been spending its energy producing a very extensive root system. Some grasses and forbs will penetrate more than 10 feet into the soil as they get established.

If you do as I did and plug forb transplants into your prairie, you might want to put a bit of biodegradable mulch (lawn clipping are good, newspaper is possible) in the immediate vicinity of your transplant to prevent weed germination and conserve moisture. Ideally plug the plants in during a period when you have mostly dependable rainfall. This will lower the amount of care you must give them till they get “settled in” and can care for themselves. You must decide when is best for your climate and the needs of a particular plant. I try to plant in early spring (March if possible) to accommodate the most rainfall for my area (April-June). In most cases, if I plant a small potted plant in March, it’s ready to take care of itself by the time the ground is drying in July, though I may keep a weekly eye on it, in the event I might have to intervene if no rains occur for more than a month at a time. After the first year, the plants are on their own to thrive or fail as natural forces dictate. In the end, what I want is a self sustaining habitat that provides a full growing season of interest for me, and habitat and food sources for the wildlife of my area.

Periodic burning as biomass accumulates will renew a prairie and will probably be the only maintainace an established prairie needs. Often every 3-4 years is adequate, though as I’m doing weed control by burning, I’ve tried to burn every other year. If your site is large enough to accommodate it, burn portions of the grassland in alternate years. Some insects will overwinter (like butterflies in cocoons) and will not survive being burned.

In my own recovery, due to being a tallgrass prairie and Bermuda being shade intolerant, I opted for no control…and simply allow the taller grasses to shade the Bermuda out. I’m not certain, but I believe it is working, the Bermuda is definitely on the recession and the tall grasses are on the increase. Forbs (flowering plants) are also on the increase. I have researched appropriate plants for my area and generally tried to responsibly collect seeds of them in my local area (10 mile radius or so). Many prairie plants still occur along roadsides and railroad right-of-ways. Where necessary, I have purchased plants that have their biological origins less than 200 miles from me. When propagation is difficult but the plant occurs locally (like lead plant (Amorpha canescens) and compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)), I’ve resorted to buying 1-2 plants from commercial sources, planted them in habitat, and waited for nature to take her course, with the help of the local population for pollen interchange. Liatris pycnostachys (tall gayfeather), Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), texas obedient plant (Physostegia angustifolia), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) have happily reseeded themselves into spots and drifts and in a few cases, masses.

Liatris and silphium in the side acreage
Purple Coneflowers with Butterfly

Some prairie plants spread vegetatively and have taken over fairly large districts by cloning. These include wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), sunflowers: (Helianthus grosseseratus, H. salicifolius, H. occidentalis, H. maximilanii), and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa), Michigan lily (Lilium michiganese).

Some of the best surprises though have been what was either in the seedbank on my site or has been deposited by wildlife or the winds. I have a number of tube-flowered penstemon (Penstemon tubaeflorus) which I have never encouraged in any way. A large (after three years) patch of an unidentified sunflower occurred spontaneously. Big Bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), prairie cordgreass (Spartina sp), Spiderworts (Tradescantia sp.), goldenrods (Solidago sp.),asters (Aster ssp), prairie rose gentians (Sabatia campestris), sensitive plant (Mimosa nuttallii), black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Claytonia virginica, blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium sp.), prairie larkspur (Delphinium virescens), prairie anemone (Anemone carolinianum), native thistles (Cirsium), lady tresses orchids (Spiranthes sp.), and wood oxalis (Oxalis violacea) all grace the prairie and have never been planted by the hand of man there. Different asters, St John’s wort (Hypericum sp), pussy toes (Antennaria), differing goldenrods grace the savannah/short-grass area as well as a smattering of a few of the species as inhabit the pure prairie.

Among the wildlife that I have seen are midland brown snakes, garter snakes, rough greensnakes, prairie kingsnake, northern water snake (I have a pond that sits on one edge of my property, but the watersnakes even seem to live as far as the house), blue tailed skinks, wood turtles, box terrapins, glass lizards, spadefood toads, leopard frogs, gray tree frogs, cricket frogs, terrestrial crayfish, many insect species. Voles, field mice, and rabbits find it makes a good home also. Many bird species feed and rear young in the savannah trees (blue jay, downy woodpecker, red bellied woodpecker, chickadees, titmice, purple finch, doves, various native sparrows, nuthatches and cardinals have been observed rearing young. I usually get a biological surprise about every year also as I find something new.

The most interesting thing for me, is to watch the habitat evolve. Some plants like poppy mallows (Callirhoe) and prairie clovers (Dalea) have thrived, but I’ve yet to see any offspring elsewhere in the garden. Some (like the liatris) have made themselves totally at home and now have 100s and possibly approaching 1000s of offspring.

Please take some time to cultivate some of our native plants, both for their adaptability to whatever the climate will throw at them, their value to the wildlife, and frankly the exotic beauty that many of them exhibit. Be a wildflower evangelist, convince your neighbor to try some of the natives you’re growing.

A friendly reminder, please don't collect rare plants from natural habitats. Please don't overcollect seeds either, I always took care to collect only a very small percentage of the seed where they were ample. Also, please remember that as most prairie plants have massive root systems, digging is likely to just result in the death of the plant. Your success is much more likely if you buy responsibly propagated plants, than seriously maimed wildlings. On that note...I've also found that young plants adjust to the "wild" setting much faster. Thus, both your pocket book and your planting can be best accomodated with plants that are just past the plug stage (ie young seedlings). Also, you'll find that it's a LOT easier to plant them than digging gallon holes too!

Please visit My Native Plant Photo Collection I have organized them into months, based on what is blooming at a particular month in the prairie. My photographic skills have improved much in the last year, so I apologize for the older photos, but still it gives you an idea of what each plant looks like and what blooming period I have had for that species over the years. Eventually, I’ll probably replace them all with photographically worthy (versus documentarily worthy) photos.