The United States' tall grass prairies spread across sections of Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa north into Minnesota and the Dakotas. This ecosystem has historically been subject to drought and lightning strikes. Wildfires occurring every five to 10 years kill many of the region's trees and shrubs, allowing grasses to flourish. Some tree species, however, have managed to withstand the challenges of life as tall grass prairies natives.
Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is a tree in the beech family with a spread that often exceeds its impressive height. This oak, found in each of the tall grass prairie states, can top 100 feet high. It has deeply fissured bark and stout, horizontal limbs with large, lobed green leaves. Distinctive fringe-capped acorns---the largest of any native oaks'---can be up to 1.5 inches wide. Drought-resistant, it's a long-lived tree that grows more quickly than many oaks. Bur oak handles sun to full shade and a wide range of soils, including limestone-based ones.
Common hackberry (Celtis occidentails) is an elm-family tall grass prairie native. The tree grows between 60 and 100 feet high, depending on its habitat. It often suffers from witches' broom, a disfiguring but relatively harmless condition that causes clusters of short twigs to appear along its spreading branches. As the tree ages, its bark develops a stucco-like appearance. Bright green leaves become yellow in autumn.
Pale green spring blooms produce clusters of deep purple or brown fall berries, a major food source for prairie birds. The Dakota tribe dried the berries as a spice. Hackberry provides lumber for furniture, plywood and box makers. The drought-tolerant trees perform best in fertile, moist soil.
Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is native throughout much of the country, including much of the tall grass prairies. The largest of the United States' native cherries, this rose-family tree grows quickly to between 50 and more than 100 feet high. The tree's glossy, serrated and pointed green leaves become yellow in fall.
Between March and June, black cherry's drooping clusters of white flowers appear. Cherries that follow ripen from red to black from August to October. A wildlife favorite, they're edible right off the tree. They also make good preserves, pies and juice. Ingesting the fruit's seeds, however, is potentially fatal. Black cherry trees grow in sun or shade and like well-drained soil.