Prairies, the heart of Midwestern scenery, are made up mostly of grasses, taller grasses, grass-like plants, sedges, and flowering plants. They can seemingly roll on forever or dapple the smallest spaces. Forbs that are present can vary greatly in color, bloom, and height, and reside mainly within the Great Plains of the Midwest. Prairies are only about 8,000 years old and, surprisingly, only about 1 percent are left. Care for and establishment of these land beauties is often only for the truly committed, but the reward is more than equal the endeavor.
While prairies are 80 percent grasses, it’s often the flowers that people remember. Flower fields bloom in varying abundance and dazzle in yellows, purples, pinks, and whites with coneflowers, milkweeds, rosin weeds, prairie dock, plantains, and clover, to name a few. A sea of dancing insects can be found hovering above, pollinating and eating with fervor. The air is filled with the cacophony of humming and buzzing; birds swoop, sing, and chirp with afternoon snacking.
A visit that allows time for sitting, watching, and pondering will often delight with the sighting of sparrows, finches, jays, butterflies, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, katydids, dragonflies, damselflies, leaf hoppers, beetles, spiders, toads, snakes, and several-million soil fauna. Larger animals share the prairie as well, including badgers, beavers, black-footed ferrets, coyotes, foxes, squirrels, muskrats, and deer, but you’ll need to sit quite still for some time to see them.
To really experience all that a prairie has to offer, visiting daily would be best, but there’s another option. Establishing a prairie in your own space, whether a few plants or a few acres, can be extremely rewarding.
Prairie can usually be split into three categories: wet, mesic, and dry. There are different flora types for each variety of prairie, with plenty of crossover. These can often be found broken down further to address soil conditions to help with successful establishment in cases of low soil (organic matter), gravel, or clay. Prairies generally like it hot and dry, seeking full sun, though some species are better suited to regular rainfall or even consistently “wet feet.”
There are a variety of methods for planting: seeds, seed mix/mats, plugs (small plants), and plants. Diversity is key and, in smaller locations, a combination planting can be best. Reliable, reputable seed or plant companies will generally result in less work, but that depends a lot on site and soil prep. The amount of energy and work will vary some, with water and weeds always being the nemesis for establishment. A prairie can take longer to establish than other garden settings, but around years five to eight and beyond, you should have to do little but enjoy it.
Burns in the fall or spring can greatly help in management, as a good hot burn not only stifles out weeds, it helps to germinate an entirely new seedbank. Just be sure to consult with a professional regarding permits and rules.
Very few trees call the prairie home, mostly due to the intolerance of fire. Oaks (Quercus) and hickories are two that thrive in the terrain, while black cherry, walnut, and elm can also be found. Oaks are one of the few predominant species that do not release all their nutrients to the ground floor when they shed leaves. They pull the nutrients back into their cell structure and down their roots, leaving their leaves paper dry to facilitate a quick, hot burn.
Prairie plant roots go deep at 8 to 14 feet, so surviving fire, sequestering carbon, stabilizing soils, and moving nutrients comes naturally to these summer wonders. At up to 20 square feet of space per plant above and below ground, these amazing plants hold their own in the harsh cold, sudden frosts, drought, and fires associated with Midwestern regions.
Temperate grasslands are considered the world’s most-endangered ecosystem, with less than 1 percent left, so planting some of these herbaceous gems in any size garden is beneficial to their survival. Not all prairie plant species would be neighbor friendly—they seed out too prevalently for town use—but with hundreds to choose from, there are options.
Managing a prairie or prairie plants is an amazing peek into a complex ecosystem, one that will inspire any generation. There are many companies and resources available for all kinds of assistance. Happy Prairie-ing!
Karina Mae is the designer and team leader at Garden Search & Rescue.
Garden Search & Rescue
Nearby prairies: UW Arboretum Curtis Prairie and Green Prairie, Pope Farm Conservancy, Pleasant Valley Conservancy, and Pheasant Branch Conservancy.
Author’s favorite prairie plants:
Showy Goldenrod, Solidago speciosa
Ironweed, Veronica fasciculata
Compass Plant, Silphium laciniatum
Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa
Purple Prairie Clover, Dalea purpurea*
Wild Bergamont, Monarda fistulosa
Creamy Gentian, Gentiana alba*
Wild Quinine, Parthenium integrifolium*
Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium
Switch Grass, Panicum virgatum