MPF’s Linden Prairie. Photo: R. S. Kinnerson
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, hydrology, and topography, 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 from the Flint Hills region of Kansas eastward through Missouri and all the way to Ohio. There are many grassland types in the eastern and southeastern United States as well, including prairies, glades, fens, stream scours, and coastal grasslands. Westward from the Flint Hills of Kansas (west of Wichita, KS), mixed-grass and short grass prairie are the dominant prairie types. All prairie types developed with natural disturbances including fire and grazing, and most 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 tree species from taking over a prairie. 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. These root systems store significant amounts of atmospheric carbon, which is critically important in mitigating the harmful effects of climate change. These root systems also slow and trap stormwater, filtering pollutants in rainwater runoff and protecting streams. In addition, prairie soils harbor the most diverse soil microbial communities on earth, including mycorrhizal fungi, largely due to these root systems.
How Did Prairie Get in the Midwest?
Modern prairie is 8,000 years ago, but is millions of years in the making. 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. Savannas and glades are other types of native grasslands. Historically Midwestern prairie fires were routinely set by Native American cultures (for a wide variety of reasons) and occasional lightning fires.
How Much Prairie is Left?
Today, less that 1/2 of 1% of native prairies remain in Missouri. Once covering at least 15 million acres in Missouri—one-third of the state—up until statehood in 1821, today, according to the Missouri Natural Heritage Database, fewer than 51,000 scattered acres of original, unplowed prairie remain. Approximately 26,600 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.
“Presettlement Prairie” is a term that refers to prairie in Missouri and elsewhere in the United States before European settlement.
The following articles and other documents by Dr. Walter Schroeder provide details about presettlement prairie in Missouri:
Creating a Prairie Man of Missouri, by Walter Schroeder, from the Missouri Prairie Journal, Volume 32, Number 3 & 4, 2011.
Presettlement Prairies of Missouri by Walter A Schroeder (PDF 19MB) Published by the Missouri Department of Conservation
The Presettlement Prairie in the Kansas City Region (Jackson County, MO) (PDF 13MB) Published in the Missouri Prairie Journal, Volume 7, Number 2, December 1985
The Early Prairies of St. Louis (PDF 12MB) Published in the Missouri Prairie Journal, Volume 3, April 1981
Why Does Prairie Matter?
Prairies are home to a stunning diversity of plant, animal, and insect life. At least 800 native plant species alone can occur on Missouri’s prairies (Doug Ladd, former Director of Conservation Science for The Nature Conservancy).
Prairie is an original American landscape, and, along with other temperate grasslands of the world, is one of the planet’s most imperiled major ecosystems—prairies are 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 hundreds of native species of pollinating insects, many of which are essential for food crop pollination.
Prairie soils can absorb a large volume of rainfall before runoff occurs, thereby naturally filtering water, protecting streams from flood events, and helping to recharge groundwater supplies.
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.
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. Other native grasslands in Missouri are glades, which are dry, rocky openings within woodlands; savannas, which are like prairies, but with up to 30 percent tree cover. Open woodlands, with 30 to 70% tree cover, also feature an understory of prairie plants and some may be considered native grasslands.
The term “native grassland” can also refer to reconstructed prairies, 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 provide important benefits for people including carbon storage and stormwater filtration.
Many plants that are hardy, water-efficient, and beautiful for landscaping in the built environment (e.g., neighborhoods, schools, cities, corporate campuses) originate from Missouri’s prairies. Learn more about landscaping with native plants with MPF’s Grow Native! program.
What is the difference between prairie remnants, restorations and reconstructions? Read more here.