Existing North American prairies are a small remnant of the prairies that covered North America at the time of European settlement. Fertile prairies lent themselves to fertile farmland. Tall-grass prairie once sprawled over 142 million acres or 1.4 millions square miles but has been reduced to less than 1 percent of that today.
Native prairie plants, like the people who are native to a region, have lived in that area for generations and have developed a community. Local people dress, eat, and live in ways suited to their environment and so do native plants. Native plants ‘house’ local pollinators, insects, birds, and animals that have co-evolved together to create a local ecosystem. Many prairie plants are long-living perennials and are able to withstand poor growing conditions and periodic grazing. Unlike many non-native pasture grasses, the sturdy stems of prairie grasses remain standing throughout winter, despite heavy snowfall accumulation. These stems provide cover in early spring, when waterfowl and ground nesting birds need it most. Birds such as bobolink, eastern and western meadowlark, savannah and grasshopper sparrow, and northern harrier depend on these open grasslands for food and shelter. These birds require open grasslands for nesting and food. Their nests are made of grassland material and they eat the insects that live in the grassland ecosystem. These birds cannot survive in woodland or a shoreline ecosystem. They have evolved within the grassland ecosystem.
Migrating birds need suitable habitat during their travels, which means plenty of native plants that host insects. Migrating birds eat insects to restore themselves after flying eighteen or more hour over the Gulf of Mexico. As they move northward, they keep feeding on insects so that when they finally arrive at their breeding ground they have the energy they need for nesting. And nesting birds feed insects to their young since insects provide the required protein for the baby birds’ development. Only native plants host the insects needed by migrating and nesting birds. And the big swath of The Great Plains in the center of the United States provide the native plants and insects that these migrating birds depend upon.
In addition to feeding the birds, the insects that live in our native prairies pollinate plants; return nutrients tied up in dead plants and animals back into the soil; aerate and enrich the soil; and provide food for most other animals. How long would we be able to survive if there were no longer pollinating insects, like bees? In a healthy native prairie, something is blooming all through the growing season to feed the bees, and other pollinating insects all through the spring and summer and into the fall.
Some native prairie plants are also the host plants for butterflies. When we think of butterflies, we think of flowering plants that can provide nectar to adult butterflies. But butterflies also need specific plants on which they can lay their eggs. Monarch larvae develop only on milkweed plants. The Karner blue butterfly, which is an endangered species, develop on wild lupine plant leaves.
So consider adding some native prairie plants to your garden this year and see your garden come alive with birds, bees, and butterflies.