07 July 2011

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

The tallgrass prairie is a highly overlooked and important ecosystem that quickly fell prey to the plow despite its significant role in our continent's ecology. The prairie once spread from Canada to Texas, and though the plant and animal species composition changes across such a huge north-south range, there are many species that occur commonly. From Texas to Wisconsin, you can find little bluestem, big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, beebalm, black-eyed susans, butterfly weed and much more. The prairie is (or was) home to a beautiful array of plant and animal species.

When Lewis and Clark ventured forth into the once prairies, they came across sights that are almost impossible to imagine today: rumbling herds of thousands upon thousands of bison rolling across the Missouri prairies with wolf packs nipping at their heels. Mountain lions and grizzly bears slinked through the shoulder high grasses and forbes. (Those two predators seem to us like mountain species only because we have forced them to retreat to those higher, more untouched ecosystems.)

Sadly, you can't find very many true prairies in the wild. What once covered more than 140 million acres of the United States is now less than 4% of its original area. Most commonly, you can stumble across small remnants along roadsides, in cemeteries and on land that wasn't good for agriculture.

It's that last reason that we can thank for the existence of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, which is a 10,000-plus acre piece of prairie in the Flint Hills of Kansas outside of Strong City.

During a recent visit, the prairie was very much in its mid-summer dormant phase, transitioning from shorter spring bloomers to taller fall plants, like the tall grasses and asters. It was 100 degrees.

Still, we found a few things blooming - or just finished blooming - and the skies were wide open.

Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta)

Purple prairie clover (Dalea pupurea var. purpurea) (Just finishing blooming)

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) (Just finished blooming)

Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa)

Butterflyweed (Asclepius tuberosa)

I would love to come back to this prairie in the spring or fall to watch the real show, and to have more time to hike further into the backcountry to see the bison. The prairie is a real treat - it takes time for the eyes and mind to refocus and truly appreciate its beauty.


Bluestem said...

I am jealous. I want to see a real prairie some day. Thanks for the quick tour.
I had purple prairie clover growing in my prairie without realizing what it was. I let it grow for several weeks and waited for the flower heads to bloom or do something and nothing ever happened. I was afraid the plants would take over so I pulled them out. There was one I overlooked until I saw it blooming a couple of weeks ago. I felt bad that I removed the others, but I am hopeful that this one will reseed.

Abbey said...

Thanks for the perspective. I've never recognized how hardy butterfly weed is. It always looks tropical to me, but your picture gives me a better idea of it's natural environment.

Lee said...

Abbey, the butterfly weed you find sold commonly in Texas nurseries probably is the tropical one called Asclepius curvicassica (I think). That's one of the problems with common names! It grows well in Texas and the monarchs like it but it is not one of the prairie natives. The 'official' butterfly weed is very hardy. I almost never see it grown in Texas but it is a popular ornamental in the Midwest.

Lee said...

I love purple prairie clover! There are a few specimens growing at the mueller prairie restoration here in Austin. I may need to find some seeds or transplants somewhere...

Toby Mc said...

Ahh I miss this. I lived in Montana for a while and once you get outside the larger central state cities it's all gorgeous plains. Great pictures of a very undervalued part of the ecosystem!