English Prairie,Pretty Prairie, Mongoquinong Prairie. Pretty names locally, but we all know prairies equal “out west” and buffalo herds, right?
Well, yes and no.
The great American prairie as Lewis and Clark saw it extended from Illinois to the Rocky Mountains, but there were also pieces of prairie that extended into Indiana, and yes, we did have bison occurring naturally in Indiana in the past. That’s why they are on our state seal.
Vestiges of those original prairies still exist but are rare. There’s a prairie wildflower planting in White River State Park in downtown Indianapolis, incongruous with the skyscrapers but very pretty.
But you don’t have to travel out of the county to see one. That’s because our county park department is involved in restoration of a tallgrass prairie at Pine Knob County Park in Howe. Tallgrass prairies were the easternmost prairies. Near the Rockies you find shortgrass prairies, with mixed-grass prairies in between.
Prairies are treeless areas. Where prairies meet wooded areas, there are occasionally a few trees growing amid the grasses and that’s called a savanna. There’s also an oak savanna being restored at Pine Knob, because that is what was naturally there, a place where woods and prairie met.
What keeps the trees out of the prairies is wildfire. Fire periodically swept the Great Plains when the grasses were dry. They burned quickly and hot, and small trees usually couldn’t survive the fires. But one of the hallmarks of prairie plants is that they have amazingly long roots that can reach eight feet into the ground. The top of the plant may burn, but the roots remain and can regenerate the plant.
These roots are also the reason the soil in prairies is so rich. And also the reason that early settlers built houses out of the sod – these roots were holding the soil together so that it could be cut and dried and used like bricks. They also explain why the prairie soil was so hard to farm before the invention of specialized plows for prairies, and why the early settlers hired “sodbusters” to break through the soil and roots to enable farming.
To manage a prairie, or restore one, means planning for fires. Managed fires are started in the spring when the plants have been matted down by the winter snows, which makes the fires more manageable. Days are chosen when the winds are calm and won’t spread the fire beyond where it’s wanted. Specialists are called in to set the fires and keep them under control. It may seem destructive at first, but it’s a necessary part of having a prairie.
So what can you expect to see on a prairie? Diversity! Prairies have more species of plants than woodlands. They also have more insects than other kinds of habitats. Big Blue Stem Grass is one of the major prairie grasses, but beyond grasses, prairies are awash in vivid colors. You can find yarrow, hawkweed, sedges, spiderwort, daisies, black-eyed Susan, wild sunflowers, golden alexanders, echinacea, beebalm, milkweed, butterfly weed, asters, blazing star, golden rod, and boneset. There is an array of beetles, flies, wasps, dragonflies, butterflies and other insects, once you know to look for them.
Need help identifying all these plants and animals? That’s why you should put Saturday, June 29, on your calendar for the Pine Knob Prairie Flower Walk. Scott Beam, our county naturalist, will lead the hike and point out the various plants. I was at Pine Knob a week ago last Friday and things were already starting to bloom – they should be in full stride by this coming Saturday. The walk starts at 10 a.m. from the Pine Knob parking lot, about 2.5 miles east of Howe on SR 120. If you haven’t visited this park before, this would be an excellent time to start! And if you have been there before, this would be an excellent time to see it in full bloom. Bring a hat for shade and a water bottle.