Prairies

Photo credit: Bill Glass

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What You Can Do

Hike a trail.

Learn to identify bird and frog calls.

Volunteer to collect and clean seeds, plant native species, or monitor plants and animals.

Find inspiration to create your own prairie garden.

Prairies: The Legacy of the Land

Prairies are vibrant landscapes with hundreds of interconnected plant and animal species. Here, visitors may see the plains leopard frog, spotted turtle; birds such as the meadowlark, bobolink and sandpiper; and rare insect species. There are also hundreds of species of native prairie plants that visitors can see, depending on the time of year and type of prairie.

Prairies contribute significant ecological benefits to humans by:

  • retaining considerable amounts of precipitation;
  • minimizing flood damage; and
  • storing more carbon per acre than most other ecosystems.

Throughout much of Midwestern history, the prairie stretched to the horizon with waves of wildflowers and tall grasses. Midwestern prairies were approaching extinction by the 1930s, as millions of acres were converted to cornfields and pasture or developed for residential and commercial purposes. This prompted ecological restoration efforts that continue to this day.

Types of Prairies

It’s easy to distinguish between moist black-soil prairies, with taller grasses and wildflowers, and dry prairies, where the plants have adapted to less moisture by staying shorter. In a black-soil prairie you can see grasses like the big bluestem and Indian grass, wildflowers like yellow coneflower and New England aster, and unique, easy-to-recognize plants like prairie dock and compass plant. Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve (Westchester, IL) and Somme Prairie Nature Preserve (Northbrook, IL) are examples of black-soil prairies.

Dry prairies include hill and sand prairies, where the soil drains rapidly. In these prairies you can see little bluestem, leadplant, purple prairie clover and rough blazing star, among many other species that require less moisture. Shoe Factory Road Prairie Nature Preserve (Hoffman Estates, IL) and Belmont Prairie (Downers Grove, IL) are examples of hill prairies; sandy prairies of the region include Chiwaukee Prairie (Kenosha, WI) and Powderhorn Prairie (Chicago, IL)

Dolomite prairies are rare habitats that form on limestone scraped bare by glaciers 10,000 years ago. You can find plants such as tufted hair grass, slender sandwort, and prairie satin grass in a dolomite prairie. Visit the Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve (Lockport, IL) and the Blodgett Road Dolomite Prairie (Wilmington, IL) to explore this rare habitat.

All prairies share a dependence on fire to keep them free of woody species. Land managers and trained restoration volunteers employ controlled burns to naturally prevent overgrowth by trees and shrubs that choke out prairie plants. New growth in the prairie sprouts with minerals released by fire.

 

Read more about prairies in the Chicago Wilderness Atlas of Biodiversity.