The Blue Grass Prairie

By Kate Crowley
This cool and mostly wet summer was exactly what our tall grass prairie has been waiting for.  It has been years since the big bluestem grasses towered over our heads, but now when we walk the trail along the three sides of the prairie, we feel as though we’re walking in a tunnel.  Who needs a corn maze? We could make a grass maze very easily if we wished, but instead we will leave the two acres intact and just admire its beauty from the sides. 
Besides the weather, it seems likely that burning the section of the field this past spring gave it a boost, especially when we compare it to the other third, which we did not burn.  There is a distinct difference in size and density of the two tracts. Before the arrival of people lightning strikes were the main cause of prairie fires and also an important part of their life cycle.  Fire reduced plant litter and helped to replace minerals and nutrients in the soil.  Once the Native Americans arrived in these lands, they learned that intentionally burning the grass created better grazing conditions for bison the following year.  The vast grazing herds were a force of nature and their habit of constantly moving allowed the prairie to recover after they had passed through, with the additional benefit of the fertilizer they left behind.
I have written about our tall grass prairie in the past, but this year it is reminding us of just how fortunate we are to have this native grass through no hard labor of our own.  It has always been here, never put under the plow, thankfully, and just waiting for the right conditions to return to its former glory.  In the neighboring field where we once kept two horses the big bluestem is reappearing in clumps. It is in fact a type of perennial bunchgrass, and is considered the key component among the four species of native grass that characterize a tallgrass prairie.  The others are Indiangrass, switchgrass and little bluestem.  Prior to European settlement 18 million acres of prairie were found in Minnesota.  Today less than 2% remains.
These prairie grasses are known to provide cover for at least 24 species of songbirds, although I doubt ours can count that many.  They attract butterflies, provide nesting materials for native bees and best of all are not of interest to white tail deer.
The big bluestem is so thick in our field that the other three grasses fight to compete, but we have been thrilled to find many more Liatris, (also known as blazing star and gayfeather), flowers mixed in among the grasses. 
These are native flowers that produce a single stem that is punctuated with purple/pink flowers up and down the entire stem. The thistle-like flowers have a fuzzy appearance with extended white stamens and pistils. They bloom from the top down and the lowest buds are scaley, looking a bit like little pineapples. While they do not give off a strong perfume, they are mightily attractive to bees and other pollinators and for this we feel especially grateful. 
If you’re not sure where to find a restored tall grass prairie, I am happy to inform you that you need look no further than the Audubon Center of the North Woods, just west of Sandstone, on Grindstone Lake. When you turn into the driveway, the prairie is just to your left.  Wide, mowed trails circle around and through it, so you too can get some of the same feeling Mike and I have when we walk around our prairie.  The property is open to the public seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  The top of the grass at this time of year takes on a deep purple tone, contrasting with the tan stalks. Take some time in the coming weeks to immerse yourself in the past and let the tall grasses sweep away your cares. 


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