Virgin Prairie: Rarer Than Old-Growth Forest

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
16 min readAug 26, 2019
Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) — Photo by author

The following is an excerpt from my new book, “Roadtripping at the End of the World.

I was born and raised in Nebraska, but my curiosity about the native prairies was not piqued until years later. In September 2018, over twenty-five years since the last time I lived in the state, I finally visited a remnant of original, unplowed prairie, located outside the city of Lincoln and entirely surrounded by the farmland that replaced most of it. I was entranced by what I found.

As an ecosystem type, prairies exist in conditions too moist for desert flora and too dry to support forest. Grasses are the most prevalent family of plants, both in number of species and in sheer mass. Forbs — which are non-grass plants without woody stems (so, not trees or shrubs) — are less common but totally essential. Trees are rare except near water.

The prairies of the Great Plains formed two to five thousand years after the last glaciers retreated. Retreating ice left behind mixed sediments that were gradually built into topsoil over many centuries with the addition of wind-borne dust and decayed organic matter.The ecosystem co-evolved with various animals including Buffalo, Elk, Deer, Rabbits, and Prairie Dogs, the last of whom played an important role in aerating the soil and creating channels for water penetration with their extensive tunneling.

At one time, prairies dominated Illinois, southern and western Minnesota, Iowa, northern Missouri, southwestern Manitoba, both Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, central Texas, southern Saskatchewan, southeastern Alberta, Montana, and the eastern parts of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. At their peak, the North American prairies covered 677,394 square miles, an area nearly a quarter (23%) the size of the lower 48 states. Within this vast zone, Tallgrass prairies grew in the east, where it was wetter at a lower elevation, and Shortgrass prairie in the west, where it was drier and higher, with Mixed Grass prairie taking up a wide band in between.

Grasses might strike most people as boring, but the many species found in Tallgrass Prairies are not the stuff of lawns. Growing three to six feet high, they send down roots five to twelve feet. Though their vegetative portion is the most obvious part to us — and is indeed tall — the…