Tallgrass

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

A third of Missouri once was covered with tallgrass prairie - about 15 million acres. Now, about 80,000 acres remain. More than 99 percent of our prairie heritage has vanished under the plow and development.

But landowners, from the urban dweller with a tiny lot to the farmer with a yen for history, can reclaim a bit of that past...and profit in the doing. Not only are native grasses good for livestock and wildlife, they make attractive complements to native wildflowers in a natural garden.

And the presence of a mini-prairie, even a few feet of it, is a reminder of what we've destroyed and an incentive to get involved with prairie preservation in the state.

Until recently, there was no national area set aside to preserve native tallgrass prairie. Many vast areas in the West contain shortgrass prairie, but most states that once had great tallgrass prairies have lost much of it.

Oklahoma and Kansas have probably the largest chunks of tallgrass remaining, especially the Flint Hills section of Kansas.

Proposals to establish a Prairie National Park stumbled over landowner objections for years. Finally, the National Parks and Conservation Association and the National Park Trust bought a 10,894-acre ranch near Strong City, KS, which will be turned over to the federal government as the official Tallgrass Prairie National Park. The Nature Conservancy has recently established a 40,000 acre tract in the southern Flint Hills.

The largest protected area is 52,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska in north-central Oklahoma. The area is owned by the Oklahoma Nature Conservancy. Illinois is developing about 19,000 acres of a former federal arsenal near Chicago as a National Grassland. It would be the largest prairie reserve east of the Mississippi River.

Missouri's largest remnant tallgrass prairie is 2,678-acre Prairie State Park in Barton County. Some native prairie occurs on Conservation Department land - notably 1,680-acre Taberville Prairie in St. Clair County. The Conservation Department bought the land in 1959 and added to it in 1961. In the years since then, the Conservation Department has purchased and conserved dozens of smaller prairie tracts.

Retired Conservation Department biologist Don Christisen, a longtime prairie enthusiast, was a driving force behind the founding of the Missouri Prairie Foundation in the mid-1960s. Early on, he enlisted the late G. Andy Runge, a Mexico attorney who ultimately became both the Foundation president and a conservation commissioner.

The Foundation raised money to buy undisturbed tallgrass prairie, starting with tiny (40-acre) Friendly Prairie south of Sedalia. Since, the Foundation has bought a number of other prairie tracts.

Missouri native prairie got a real boost from the Nature Conservancy, a national organization that buys endangered ecosystems and turns them over to an appropriate agency for management. In 30 years, the Conservancy has bought more than 9,000 acres of mostly prairie and turned management of about 6,000 acres of it over to either the Conservation Department or the Department of Natural Resources.

But despite the relatively few public prairie acres, the battle to preserve dwindling private acres is a slow and losing one. It helps to have an appreciation of what prairie is and one way to develop that appreciation is by using prairie grass in landscaping.

Native grasses are perfect for wildflower beds. Most are "bunch" grasses, meaning they grow in a compact clump, ideal for plugging a niche in a landscaping scheme. Native grasses have incredible root systems. Switchgrass can reach a dozen feet below the ground, and big bluestem and Indiangrass go almost as far.

Further, most are warm season grasses - they green and grow during summer and ripen in autumn, so they parallel most flower plantings.

Native grass takes a while to establish, but there are shortcuts (see the tip about stratifying seed). You can gather seed yourself, but native grass seed is notoriously low in "pure live seed" - meaning it takes many collected to get one that will germinate. PLS is more expensive to buy than run-of-the-crop, but it is worth the extra cost.

Prairie grass makes a beautiful and unusual change from the familiar round of nursery plantings.

Try it - prairie enthusiasts hope you'll like it.

Sources of Prairie Plants

  • Hamilton Seeds and Wildflowers, HC Rt. 9, Box 138, Elk Prairie 65464
  • Missouri Wildflowers Nursery, 9814 Pleasant Hill Rd., Jefferson City 65109
  • Rock Post Wildflowers Nursery, 5798 Windy Meadows Lane, Fulton 65251
  • Shaw Arboretum, Box 38, Gray Summit, 63039; Bluestem Prairie Nursery, Rt. 2, Box 106-A, Hillsboro, IL 62049 (has an outstanding variety of Canada wild rye)

For Further Information

Any Missouri prairie enthusiast can join the Missouri Prairie Foundation, Box 200, Columbia 65201 ($20-$1,000/year, depending on scope of membership).

The Conservation Department's Prairie Day is in mid-May. It's a chance to pick the brains of prairie experts and see an authentic tallgrass prairie in action. Call the Conservation Department's Education/Interpretation Division ((573) 751-4115) for date and directions.

A Prairie Grass Portfolio

Scott Woodbury of the Shaw Arboretum near St. Louis suggests the following native grasses (and one sedge) for landscaping:

  • Prairie Dropseed:die-hard grass that survives on glades. Bunches can reach 4 feet in diameter. It helps to burn prairie dropseed every year. No one knows why this stimulates the plant, but it does. The seed is expensive - an ounce costs about $15. Better to establish plants and strip your own seed for future plantings.
  • Bottlebrush Grass: Grows in shady areas about waist high. Competes well with other plants, but doesn't tend to choke out other plants.
  • Creek Oats: If you've been to the seashore and seen the oatlike grass that helps secure sand dunes, you've seen a close relative. Creek oats are common in Missouri creek areas and will grow in wet shade, unlike most native grasses. The attractive seed head does look like oats.
  • Longspike Tridens: Doesn't grow tall, has a spear-shaped seedhead that lasts longer into winter than other grasses. Has good color in the fall (grass being tan to bluish or purple). Shaw Arboretum is the only source of seed at present.
  • Sideoats Grama: For dry sites. Foliage is low, but seed stalks rise to waist high in good soil. Unusual seed head (with seeds all on one side as name suggests) is attractive.
  • June Grass: A cool season grass (most native grasses are warm season). Grows on western Missouri prairies and is the shortest of the common prairie grasses (about a foot high, with a seed stalk to 2 feet). It has a wheatlike seed head which lasts through June, then the plant goes dormant.
  • Indiangrass: Among the tallest of the tallgrasses (along with big bluestem and switchgrass), Indiangrass is among the most decorative. It has a plumelike seedhead and turns a lovely golden color in autumn. It may collapse because of its height. Some people stake it to keep it upright.
  • Big Bluestem: It's easy to see why big bluestem is called "turkey foot." Look at the distinctive three-toed seedhead that looks just like a turkey's foot. Big bluestem can grow to 8 feet or more, depending on moisture. It makes a wonderful backdrop to bright prairie flowers.
  • Little Bluestem: Little bluestem seems just right for those rock garden niches where a taller grass would overwhelm other plants. It usually grows about 3 feet high and has fuzzy seed sticking out nearly the length of the grass stem. It must have a dry site - it won't survive where there is damp ground. There are many varieties, but avoid Aldus for ornamental plantings. It just isn't pretty. Stick with Missouri varieties.
  • Switchgrass: Commonly planted as a pasture grass, switchgrass also is among the taller native grasses. The delicate, spreading spider-weblike seedhead is beautiful when decorated by dew or frost. It "seeds around," and can spread. "Heavy Metal" is a cultivated variety with a pretty bluish color.
  • Sand Lovegrass: Works in shady places or open woodlands. Will grow in dry areas. The combination of shade-tolerance and drought resistance make it ideal for woodland edges. It has a misty pink/purple coloring, with knee high foliage and waist high seed stalks.
  • Sedges: There are more than 200 sedges in Missouri, most not available from commercial outlets. But one, available only from Shaw Arboretum, is Cussock which looks like prairie dropseed but grows on wet sites. It loves sun, grows in bunches and "Stays put" (doesn't spread by seed).

The difference between grass and sedge is more of a botanist's fancy than that of the average homeowner, but "sedges have edges, grasses are round," meaning sedge stems are three-sided and grass stems are round. Native grass seed is more available than sedge seed.

Undesirables: "Undesirable" is in the eye of the beholder and depends on whether you're using grass for aesthetic or economic purposes. Broomsedge is common in infertile, old fields. It's a bluestem and is attractive, but not a good livestock grass.

Purpletop is another common poor land grass. It's also known as greasegrass (the seedheads have an oily juice that makes them feel greasy). It's more palatable to livestock than broomsedge, but isn't courted by native grass enthusiasts.

There are other "undesirables" among the warm season grasses: stinkgrass (a European import), tumblegrass or ticklegrass (it crawls up your pantleg as does windmillgrass), prairie threeawn, quackgrass (a Eurasian invader), nimblewill, witchgrass (an attractive seedhead) and of course the familiar crabgrass.

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