My favorite ecosystem: Tallgrass prairie

Filed in Uncategorized by on July 15, 2012 0 Comments

In the 1990s, I was active in prairie restoration at two, Chicago-area, tallgrass prairies.  Formed about 8,000 years ago, tallgrass prairies are a major ecosystem of the Midwest.  Settlers in the area all but destroyed the prairies through cultivation, and as environmental awareness grew, groups across the area popped up to restore prairies. The work, often done on Saturday mornings, included culling invasive, non-prairie plants and collecting seeds.

Through this work, I came to love and value prairies and wrote an article about my prairie experience that was published by Chicago Wilderness Magazine.  I am no longer physically active in this type of endeavor. But I was recently reminded about this time in my life when I came across the Summer 1998 issue of the magazine, which included my essay, in my files. Below is the beginning of the Guest Essay I wrote for the Summer 1998 issue of Chicago Wilderness Magazine:

“I traveled a long way in life until I came to a prairie. Perhaps there were some prairie patches in southwestern Michigan where I grew up — or the Chicago suburbs I lived in after college. But no one ever told me about them. Though I learned the geography of faraway places, there was no mention of prairie in any of my schooling from kindergarten through a master’s degree. I enjoyed nature and traveled to see mountains, seashores, caves, forests, rock formations, lakes. I didn’t meet any prairies there.

While I knew the value of faraway rainforests through television, I never saw a Nature or National Geographic television program on prairies, the natural heritage of this area. Prairies were not part of my roles as a housewife, single parent raising two children, and as a professional environmental manager. The culture I had lived in had such little pride and knowledge of its natural heritage that it had been unable to give itself, including me, a prairie experience.”

Chicago Wilderness magazine issue that published my Guest Essay, Encountering a Prairie.

Root systems of prairie plants

Not included in the online version of the article but included in the magazine version is a poster developed by the Conversation Research Institute that shows the deep root systems of traditional prairie plants. As I noted in the article, “The decay of the roots of prairie plants over millennia built the black soil of the Midwest. The invention of the steel plow enabled settlers to break through the thick prairie sod and to plant crops. Prairies rapidly became this country’s breadbasket to feed an expanding country, to feed the world.”

So how deep do the roots of prairie plants go? Six inches? A foot? The poster developed by the Conservation Research Institute pictorially shows the huge difference between the roots of common prairie plants and Kentucky blue grass, a common lawn grass in the Chicago area.

Photo of a Conservation Research Institute poster I have showing the difference of the deep root systems of prairie plants compared to the shallow root system of Kentucky blue grass (far left), a commonly planted yard grass in the Chicago area where I live.

Plants shown on the poster and the depth of their root systems:

Plant (as shown left to right) Depth of Root System

Kentucky Blue Grass (Poa pratensis) 2 inches

Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens) 12-14 feet

Missouri Goldenrod (Solidago missouriensi) 7 feet

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) 9 feet

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum 15 feet

Porcupine Grass (Stipa spartea) 6 feet

Heath Aster (Aster erecoides) 8 feet

Prairie Cord Grass (Spartina pectinata) 8 feet

Big Blue Stem Grass (Andropogon gerardii) 9 feet

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) 5 feet

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) 5 feet

Side Oats Gramma (Bouteloua curtipendula) 7 feet

False Boneset (Kuhnia eupatorioides) 8-9 feet

Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) 9-10 feet

White Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucantha) 7 feet

Little Blue Stem (Andropogan scoparius) 6 feet

Rosin Weed (Silphium perfoliatum) 9 feet

Purple Prairie Clover (Petalostemum purpureum) 4 feet

June Grass (Koeleria cristata) 2 feet

Cylindric Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea) 15 feet

Buffalo Grass (Buchloe dactyloides) 7.5 feet


Not only do prairie plants grow deep and enrich and conserve the soil, they are also attractive and interesting—very worth planting in our gardens and landscaping.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is one of the first prairie plants to bloom in the spring. The “smoke” in the common name refers to the look the plume-like tails of the fruits give the plant. Photo taken at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL

The common names of prairie plants often reflect an observable trait of the plant.

If a flower of obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) is pushed to one side, it “obeys” this command and remains there for a while before returning to its original position.

One of my favorite prairie plants is bottle gentian.

The blue flowers of bottle or closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) resemble bottles and bloom late in the summer and into fall. The plant often self-fertilizes itself because bees cannot access the flowers, which remain closed.

Unfortunately, because of pain due to health problems, I haven’t been able to walk many prairies in the last two years. But I have been encouraged to see prairie plants cropping up in local gardens. The next time you are planning your garden, don’t just plant run-of-the-mill flowers like roses, tulips, and chrysanthemums, but consider making your garden more interesting while enriching the soil. Add a prairie plant or two.

Learn more about Chicago Wilderness

Chicago Wilderness Magazine Archives

Visit a prairie online or in person (I have physically visited all of them.)

West Chicago Prairie

Illinois Prairie Path (a “rail-to-trail” conversion)

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (Formerly the Joliet Arsenal, Midewin covers 19,000 acres)

Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL

Dixon Prairie at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL

Illinois Beach State Park, Waukegan, IL

Chiwaukee Prairie State Natural Area, Kenosha County, WI

Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve, Niles, Michigan 49120

Learn more about prairies

“Prairies evolved with fire. Lightening often would start the fires that cleaned out the prairies. 
The fires burn bushes and small trees if left unchecked would soon choke out the grasses. The blackened ground allows nutrients in the soil to replenish the plants and the sun to warm the earth faster thereby permitting the grasses to grow back quickly.”

Tallgrass Prairie

• Tallgrass prairie once covered 142 million acres.

• Prairies once covered about 40% of the United States.

• Prairies are one of the most recently developed ecosystems in North America.

• Prairies formed about 8,000 years ago.

• About one percent of the North American prairies still exists.

• Iowa had the largest percentage of its area covered by tallgrass prairie – 30 million acres.

• In Iowa, 99.9 percent of the historic natural landscape is gone.

Prairie Ecosystem

“The interaction of three factors maintains the prairie as a grassland.”

About the Author ()

I am a retired environmental, health and safety manager who has done some work in communications. I have a knowledge of and passion for sustainability issues. In temperament I am a peculiar mix of stable soul and free spirit.

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