A Prairie Grass Primer

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Map of original prairies–tan short grass, green mixed, blue tall grass. From Neal Smith Prairie refuge.

Imagine coming from a world of lush forests into the wide-open prairie. What a shock it must have been to find oneself surrounded by sky and windblown grass. What did early pioneers see as they entered the prairie?

Prairies are North American temperate grasslands. Grasslands are found in areas between forests and deserts, or in the case of the North American prairie, between forests and the Rocky Mountains. Upon first glance, they must have looked barren without trees. However, the unique grasses and their changing colors gave the prairie a kinetic beauty.

The easternmost prairie, the tallgrass, was dotted with wetlands and held over 70 types of grass, the most common being big bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass.

Big bluestem reaches a height of eight feet. The top of the plant branches into three stems holding seeds, giving it the nick name Turkey Foot. Grazing animals find it most tasty! Indian grass is known for its colors.

In the summer it’s blue-grey. Yellow flowers appear in late season as it becomes dark orange and purple. Switch grass is a cheery light green in summer and a bright yellow in the fall.

West of the tall grass prairie was the mixed prairie composed of little bluestem, blue grama, and types of wheat. Little bluestem reaches a height of three feet. It’s blue-grey during the growing season and becomes rusty maroon with soft silvery tufts. Blue grama averages a foot and a half in height with flowers that resemble crescent moons.

The far Western shortgrass prairie held blue-green buffalo grass along with the large mammals that ate it. It is truly a short grass, growing to a maximum of just eight inches. When dormant following a frost, it turns light brown.

The lush prairie soil is perfect for agriculture and our prairies are among the world’s most endangered ecosystems. My home state of Iowa was once 85% covered with tallgrass prairie.

Now only 0.1% of the land remains prairie, scattered in patches known as remnants. Prairie loss is a tragedy. Not only do they boast tremendous biological diversity, prairies remove carbon from the atmosphere. How wonderful it would be to have more prairies restored so we can experience what it was like when buffalo roamed.photo (23).JPG

Having fun at the Neal Smith Prairie Wildlife Center…fall

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July prairie is abundant in flowers–although the Queen Anne’s lace is an invasive species and would not have been in the original prairie

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Pioneer Hearts

~ By Catherine Haustein

Imagine coming from a world of lush forests into the wide-open prairie. What a shock it must have been to find oneself surrounded by sky and windblown grass. What did early pioneers see as they entered the prairie?

Prairies are North American temperate grasslands. Grasslands are found in areas between forests and deserts, or in the case of the North American prairie, between forests and the Rocky Mountains. Upon first glance, they must have looked barren without trees. However, the unique grasses and their changing colors gave the prairie a kinetic beauty.

The easternmost prairie, the tallgrass, was dotted with wetlands and held over 70 types of grass, the most common being big bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass.

Big bluestem reaches a height of eight feet. The top of the plant branches into three stems holding seeds, giving it the nick name Turkey Foot. Grazing animals…

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