Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tallgrass Prairies

If you had been standing in your very own backyard seven generations ago, your sight would have been quite different from what it is today. You would have seen tall grasses and beautiful wildflowers stretching to the horizon in every direction. “An ocean of grassland” once covered major areas of Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota, and parts of Oklahoma and Texas. Today only 0.2 percent of the native tall grass prairies remain in the area you all grew up (Rice, 2009).

By Tasha Jackson
Southeast Community College

I have spent many hours admiring the astonishing beauty of Mother Nature. The tall grass prairies are one of my favorite things in nature to see. I would like to take the time to tell you about the tall grass prairies including the kinds of flowers and animals that inhabit the tall grass prairie, the problems that affect the prairie, and the restoration efforts that are in place to protect these areas.

I will start out by telling you a little about the flowers and animals that live their lives in the tall grass prairies. We all know what a field of wildflowers looks like, but many of us have never and will never be able to see the astonishing wildflowers that grew in the tall grass prairies that existed long ago. There was a large variety of flowers and grasses that grew in these natural prairies. There was once 720 species of plants growing on the prairies of western Nebraska (Randolph & Shevchuk-Murray, 2007).

Some of the flowers and grasses include bluestem grass, purple Echinacea, and Indian grass (Rice, 2009). Others include soap weed Yucca, Buffalo grass, daisies, milkweed, prairie roses, morning glory, and leadplant just to name a few (Randolph & Shevchuk-Murray, 2007).

According to Ladette Randolph and Nina Shevchuk-Murray in their 2007 book The Big Empty, plants on the tall grass prairie have roots that can reach anywhere from a couple of feet up to 16 or more feet into the ground. The magnificent mixture of perennial species of grasses and flowers made the prairie a successful natural habitat and contributed to the resistance of disease (Rice, 2009). A field of one plant or crop will be easily overcome by disease. If a field has large species diversity, the disease will likely die off because it can only affect one or two plants at a time instead of several thousand plants at once.

There is also a wide variety of animals that call the tall grass prairie home. When the prairies were more plentiful, animals like bison, pronghorn deer, mule deer, elk, and the greater prairie chicken roamed the tall grasses (Randolph & Shevchuk-Murray, 2007). Now that the vast majority of the tall grass prairies are gone these animals have had to adapt to other habitats. Now that you know what lives in the prairie, let me tell you about the problems this area is facing.

There are several threats toward the survival of the tall grass prairie. Every one of us has driven past field after field of corn or some form of cropland as we drive through Nebraska, Kansas, and many other states. Many of the grasslands that were in these areas have been turned into cropland or grazing fields for livestock. Would you be shocked to find out that seventy-five million acres of American land are used to raise grains to feed livestock alone (Rice, 2009)?

According to Stanley Rice in his 2009 book Green Planet, “nearly all of the North American tall grass prairies have been converted to prime agricultural land because of the deep rich soil they have.” The problem with this is that once the tall grass prairies are destroyed by plowing…“they can never come back unless they are deliberately replanted.” 

The tall grass prairies depend on natural cycles of fires to survive. The problem is that people prevent many natural fires from occurring and without these fires the prairies are dying. The grasses are not killed by the fires because they have underground buds that ensure their survival. Natural fires are most beneficial to the tall grass prairies when they occur in the fall and spring because the new grasses have not yet begun to grow. These prairies need the fires to turn the dead stems and leaves into fertilizing ashes so the new grasses can flourish in the rich soil (Rice, 2009).

Now that you know the problems surrounding the survival of the prairies, let me tell you how they are being solved. I would like to let you know what restoration efforts are currently in place to protect this beloved area. We can help with the restoration efforts by participating in the periodic controlled fires that are conducted each year or by helping to replant the tall grass prairie. “In 1965, the Iowa State Preserves System was created.” Since then, more than 63 areas have been created for the restoration of the native prairies (Shirley, 1994).

According to Shirley’s 1994 book Restoring the Tallgrass Prairie there are 240 acres of prairie being protected near Lime Springs in Howard County, Iowa and 60 acres devoted to the National Wildflower Research Center. Another restoration effort was started by the grant of $10 million by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the prairie.

In the spring of 1992 planting began with 4 acres of forbs and 73 acres of big bluestem grass. An additional 400 acres of prairie were planted in the spring of 1993. In 1994, “4,922 acres had been purchased and authorization had been granted to purchase an additional 8,654 acres for the purpose of prairie restoration” (Shirley, 1994). A third restoration effort is called Chicago Wilderness. This is an effort to restore 7,000 acres of prairie landscape in suburban areas around Chicago (Freinkel, 2007).

According to Susan Freinkel in her 2007 book American Chestnut, this group wants to remove trees from local forest preserves to make room for a tall grass prairie reservation area. The danger of losing the diversity of grasses and wildflowers forever was well worth the loss of the few trees it would cost.

I would love to have been alive back in the 1800’s to see the tall grass prairies at their finest hour. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share the beauty of the tall grass prairie.  I have shared with you the kinds of flowers and animals that inhabit the tall grass prairie, the problems that affect the prairie, and the restoration efforts that are in place to protect these areas. I hope that when you drive by field after field of cropland on your way home, you stop to think of the way the land looked thousands of years ago.


Freinkel, S. (2007). American chestnut: The life, death, and rebirth of a perfect tree. Berkeley University Press. Retrieved May 2, 2010 from Netlibrary.

Randolph, L, & Shevchuk-Murray, N. (2007). The big empty: Contemporary Nebraska nonfiction writers. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved May 2, 2010 from Netlibrary.

Rice, S. (2009). Green planet: How plants keep the Earth alive. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Retrieved May 2, 2010 from Netlibrary.

Shirley, S. (1994). Restoring the tallgrass prairie: An illustrated manual for Iowa and the upper Midwest. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press. Retrieve May 2, 2010 from Netlibrary.

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