Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Prairies: Part 1, site indicators

When I see Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea, the prairie grasslands always come to mind. I have come across two other species similar to this, but this is the most common.
While the largest forest type in North America may be the Boreal Forest, the largest ecotype was historically the prairies. Much of the original grasslands no longer exist. The midwest and great plains have some of the richest agricultural soils, so it's hard to criticize the breadbasket of the world for plowing them under.

Prairies are dominated by herbaceous plants, not trees and shrubs. Grasslands that do contain trees, usually scrub oaks, can be found further south in Oklahoma and Texas. These are called savannas. Ohio still contains some original prairie remnants. Most of these are protected as nature preserves. Tall grass prairies reach their eastern most extension around Ohio. Closer to the Rocky Mountains are the Short grass prairies (due to lack of rain). Where the two meet you get Mixed prairie.

For educational purposes, many metro parks and nature centers are establishing their own prairies from scratch. You can purchase seed packs, hope for donation of seed (thanks Hamilton County Parks), or directly collect seed from the field. I have gathered seed both in and out of state. If you are growing these for demonstration only, I'm not picky about where the seed comes from. BUT, if you are managing original historic prairie, you should never introduce seed from another region. The genetics may be too different.

So exactly where would you put a prairie if you wanted one? Well there are a half dozen different soil types and topographic conditions ideal for prairies. Without conducting soil tests, I just look at what I call indicator species. Plants that often grow in prairies, but are not restricted or prairie obligates. In most places these sites are slightly upland and drier. None of this is in stone, I'm just basing this on my own experience. There will always be differences depending upon where you are located. One of those indicators is the Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, the orange flower above. I also commonly see the Virginia and Narrow-leaved Mountain Mints, Pycnanthemum.

The following are more photos of species I have always thought were ideal locations for a prairie, or flowers already associated with one. I welcome any comments on my particular choices. This is Flowering Spurge, Euphorbia corollata.

Partridge Pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata.

Field Milkwort, Polygala sanguinea.

Yellow Flax, Linum sulcatum.

Slender Gerardia, Agalinis tenuifolia.

Rose Pink, Sabatia angularis.

Heal-all or Self-heal, Prunella vulgaris.

Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa.

Wild Senna, Senna (Cassia) hebecarpa.

Rattlebox, Crotalaria sagittalis.

Biennial Gaura, Gaura biennis.

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