Our Native Prairies - A Story of Grass

| 5/22/2012 10:24:00 AM

A profile pic of MaryMy interest in native plants is evolving into an interest in native ecosystems.  A native, and unique to North America, ecosystem is the prairie or what we call The Great Plains.  The North American prairie lies roughly between the Illinois and Missouri Rivers to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west.  Though I find prairie plants quite interesting and beautiful, they are not the sorts of plants you usually find in your local nursery. You will most likely see native prairie plants in a roadside ditch or along a fence line.

What fascinates me about native prairie plants is what I don’t see.  Prairie plants have a ‘root-to-shoot ratio’ of two-to-one, meaning that two thirds of a prairie plant’s height is below ground so we see only a small portion of the prairie. So most of the prairie lies underground.   Young plants that show only an inch of growth above ground have spent most of their energy developing a root system a foot or more downward. Roots several feet deep tap moisture in times of drought.   Since grass grows from below, like human hair, rather that from its ends, like trees, prairie plants can survive weather extremes, mowing, grazing, and fire.  And these deep roots give The Great Plains its incredibly fertile soil for farming and sturdy grasses for grazing animals.

As you move from east to west, the rainfall decreases creating three different types of prairies.

Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park

Tall Grass Prairie

Tall grass prairie, forming the eastern portion of The Great Plains, receives up to 21 inches of rain per and is known as the true prairie.  Tall grass prairie is so-named because the component grasses - big bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass - can reach 8 to 9 feet tall with root systems growing 9 to 12 feet deep. The entire state of Iowa was once tall grass prairie. 
 Tall grass prairie stays grassland because tree seeds cannot take hold in the soil, which is a dense mat of roots, rhizomes, bulbs, and rootstock. As these root systems break down, they add large quantities of organic matter to the soil creating very fertile farmland.

5/23/2012 3:39:25 PM

Thank you so much for the kind words. I live in Michigan and we take a road trip out west once a year. The different types of prairie are fairly obvious when you drive through over the course of a day or two.

5/23/2012 2:03:16 PM

Mary, even though I've living in or near Nebraska all my life, I didn't know there were different grasses for different places. I find it interesting that someone (me) could live in an area of the midwest and not know much about the land history other than sowing and harvesting. The native land history has mostly long been forgotten by the tillers of the land. Thanks for reminding me that the land and plants were here long before civilization was. I'm looking forward to hearing more about Midwest plant history. Have a great day with the native plants.

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