The North American prairies constitute a large land area once covered with colored wildflowers and grasses. The area gets its name from the French word "prairie" which means a meadow that is grazed by cattle. This region is grassland that mostly contains grasses and herbaceous plants that die back in winter. Although urban communities have moved into the area and the diversity of prairie plants is disappearing, there's a growing movement to teach students about the characteristics of different prairie plants.
Geography and Size
The region known as the North American prairies is a triangular area beginning in the north with the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and heading south to the Great Plains and then on to Texas and Mexico. The prairies run about a thousand miles from western Indiana to the Rocky Mountains, covering roughly 1.4 million square miles, according to BluePlantBiomes.org.
Types of Prairies
Prairies consist of dry, wet and mesic (neither dry nor wet) communities. Dry prairies are typically found on rocky areas or steep hillsides. According to the University of Minnesota Extension website, these areas only receive about 10 to 20 inches of rainfall per year. Wet prairies communities develop in areas that have excessive rainfall. Soils in wet prairies drain poorly with the soils consisting of silt or clay. These soils have an abundance of grasses with sedges, which resemble plants but have solid stems. Most mesic prairie communities have sandy loam soils, retaining less water and offering more soil draining than wet prairies.
Common Prairie Plants
Prairie plants fall within three main categories: short, tall or mixed grass. Common prairie plants include big bluestem brass, blue grama grass, buffalo brass, fleabane, Indian grass, milkweed, purple coneflower and stinging needle. Big bluestem brass, the largest of all prairie grass, is an essential food for American bison. Blue grama grass, which grows in both short and tall grass prairies, is a perennial grass, with crescent-moon shaped flowers often used in flower arrangements. Fleabane grass has yellow-centered flowers that grow in clusters.
Prairie plants have underground storage structures. Even though prairie plants die back every winter, they're still kept alive by their underground root system. Roots of a prairie plant can be even longer than the height of the plant, such as the roots of switchgrass, which can be as long as 11 feet. Some roots die annually and decompose, so additional organic matter is added to soil, making prairie soil exceptionally fertile.
There are many prairie wildflowers offering medicinal value such as echinacea, also known as purple coneflowers. A member of the daisy and sunflower community, this wildflower was once used by Native Americans in treating illnesses ranging from colds to snakebites. Laboratory tests have shown that this plant has anti-inflammatory, anesthetic and antibiotic qualities that increase the resistance to viruses. Echinacea is widely available as an herbal supplement.