Prairie Frequently Asked Questions


What is Prairie?

Prairie is an ecosystem dominated by grasses and non-woody broad-leaved plants (forbs) with less than 10 percent tree cover. Twelve specific prairie natural communities are found in Missouri, determined by geology, soils, moisture, and landscape position, with each type expressing a different assemblage of plants and animals. As with all ecosystems, many elements of a prairie—plants, animals, fungi, soil—are interdependent.

Tallgrass prairie occurs in Missouri and eastward. Westward from Missouri, mixed-grass and short grass prairie are the dominant prairie types. All prairie types developed with natural disturbances including fire and grazing, and are drought tolerant.

As prairie plants grow, most of the initial growth is below ground in deep root systems. Two-thirds of the living portion of the prairie is below ground in the roots. As fire burns across the land, it burns the dead material from the top of the plants, returning its nutrients to the earth. Fire eliminates most plants that have shallow roots and can’t survive fire. Prairie plants, which tolerate fire, then re-sprout from their deep roots. Over thousands of years, the continuous cycle of life and death on the prairie built the rich, deep soils of the Midwest.

How Did Prairie Get in the Midwest?

As the glacial ice-sheets retreated from the Midwest 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, the climate gradually changed. As the forests retreated with the colder glacial climate, prairie became established in the warmer, drier climate. Forests have made advances into the prairie at different times in the past 8,000 years as the climate has changed. Fires kept most of the forest at bay. Certain trees could survive some of the fires and grew wide-spaced on prairies, creating savannas. Rocky, open slopes within woodlands that contain native prairie species are called glades. Both savannas and glades are other types of native grasslands.

How Much Prairie is Left?

Today, less that 1/10th of 1% of native prairies remain in Missouri. Once covering at least 15 million acres in Missouri—one-third of the state—today, fewer than 60,000 acres of prairie remain. Approximately 26,000 of these remaining acres are protected by state agencies, the Missouri Prairie Foundation, and other groups. Many factors have contributed to the demise of prairie, including land conversion for agricultural purposes and other human development, fire suppression, overgrazing, and invasive species.

Why Does Prairie Matter?

Prairies are home to a stunning diversity of plant, animal, and insect life. At least 800 native plant species alone occur on Missouri’s prairies (Doug Ladd, The Nature Conservancy).

Prairie is an original American landscape, and, along with other temperate grasslands of the world, one of the planet’s most imperiled major ecosystems—irreplaceable genetic reservoirs that must be conserved for future generations.

Prairie plant roots, some growing as deep as 15 feet, store carbon, and build rich soil. One acre of established prairie can produce 24,000 pounds of roots (Iowa State University) and can store at least 1 ton of carbon annually (University of Minnesota).

Prairies provide habitat for native hundreds of pollinator species, many of which are essential for food crop pollination.

Prairie can absorb a large volume of rainfall before runoff occurs, thereby naturally filtering water, protecting streams from flood events, and helping to recharge precious groundwater supplies.

Many plants that are hardy, water-efficient, and beautiful for home and corporate landscaping originate from Missouri’s prairies.

What is a “Native Grassland?”

Prairie is one kind of native grassland. A native grassland refers to a landscape or natural community dominated by grasses, wildflowers, and other non-woody vegetation. Glades, which are dry, rocky openings within woodlands, and savannas, which are like prairies, but with less than 30 percent tree cover, are other kinds of naturally occurring native grasslands. The term “native grassland” can also refer to pastures or hay meadows planted with a few or many species of native grasses and wildflowers. While these planted landscapes are not as biologically diverse as original grasslands, they are nonetheless important habitat for a variety of grassland wildlife and environmental services.

Many plants that are hardy, water-efficient, and beautiful for home and corporate landscaping originate from Missouri’s prairies.

What is “Native”?

Native plants and animals occur within a region as the result of natural processes rather than human intervention.
In Missouri and surrounding states, native plants are species that have existed since prior to the time of wide-spread European settlement a little more than 200 years ago. While the activities of indigenous people did affect the region's ecosystems, it wasn't until the mid-1800s that large-scale habitat alteration and the introduction of non-native plants began to significantly change the natural landscape of the Midwest. Native plant species in the Midwest have evolved here over the millennia and are best adapted to the region’s climate and soil conditions. Even more importantly, native plant species have co-evolved with native insect species and provide important food resources for thousands of species of invertebrates that in turn provide food for native birds and other animals.

Prairie Research

MPF has provided numerous small grants to researchers studying prairies, glades, and other native grasslands. In 2008, for example, MPF provided a small grant to Nicole Miller, then a Ph.D. candidate at Washington University, to assist with her work studying plant-pollinator interactions on Missouri prairies and glades. MPF also allows researchers—with permission—to use MPF properties to gather data and carry out other scientific work. In 2010, for example, Lauren Hart, a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, compared insect communities in original tallgrass prairies, restored prairies, and fescue-dominated agricultural fields, as well as insect feeding interactions. Results of these and other researchers’ work is often published in the Missouri Prairie Journal and posted here. MPF’s annual Prairie BioBlitz also results in data collection and biological discoveries. For example, at the Penn-Sylvania Prairie BioBliz in 2010, 242 species of plants and animals were documented in less than 24 hours, including 133 plant species confirmed from a 1999 list plus 30 newly documented plants. At the Golden Prairie BioBlitz in 2011, Arkansas darters—a candidate for federal listing—were discovered in a small spring-fed prairie stream.