Prairie Ecosystems

Prairie Ecosystems

Prairies once covered nearly one third of the state of Missouri including about half of the St. Louis metro-region. The pre-settlement prairie area was primarily north of the Missouri River, along the western border, and in scattered patches in the southern and eastern part of the state.

Prairies are essentially grasslands essentially devoid of trees and shrubs. The character of prairie plant and animal communities is influenced by the extreme climate in which they evolved. Prairie plant survival often depends upon extensive root systems and approximately two-thirds of a typical prairie plant's growth is underground. This affords the plant protection from the sun and the heat of prairie fires. The roots combine with soil to form thick mats of sod. These sod mats help to retain moisture, and as the deep roots die and decay, they contribute to formation of rich soil.

Prairie plants also have different adaptations that allow them to conserve water, often a limiting factor in the summer. The leaves of many prairie plants are slender, finely divided, and held vertically, which exposes less surface are directly to the sun. Grasses have this characteristic. Some plants have leaves that can be rolled or curled for instant shade. Others have fuzzy hairs on the leaves or stems for self-shading, including stiff goldenrod, compass plant and prairie dock. Compass plant has the unusual ability to orient its leaves so that they face away from the sun's direct rays.

MDC Burn Crew at Calvary 2008Conservationists often manage prairies using prescribed fire. This helps to cycle nutrients and allow seeds needed warmth and light to germinate. Fires were historically caused by lightening or set by Native Americans to increase prairie health.

The Green Center uses prescribed fire as a management tool in its two prairies. As a partner in the Calvary Cemetery Prairie Partnership, The Green Center also participates in prescribed fires at site.

The photo on the right shows a Missouri Department of Conservation crew conducting a prescribed ecological burn of the Calvary Cemetery Prairie in March 2008.

Large-scale prairie cultivation began in the mid-1800's. Before then, prairies were seen as infertile farmland because very few trees grew there. The thousands of years of growth, burning, nutrient cycling in prairies made it some of the richest land on earth. Today nearly all original prairie has vanished. Most of it became very fertile farms, producing primarily corn and soybeans.

Restoring Prairie Ecosystems

There are many important reasons for preserving or restoring prairie ecosystems. For one, by recreating the prairie that once characterized our region, we rediscover the past and thus promote a sense of place and a tie to land where we live.

Native prairie plants make excellent landscape plantings because they are well adapted to the local weather and soil conditions. Roger Pryor Spring 2009Consequently, they require little or no fertilizer, are relatively low maintenance and help conserve scarce resources such as water and energy. Native plants are also less frequently bothered by insect and disease problems thus reducing the need for chemical control.

One of the principal reasons for landscaping with native plants relies on increased species diversity and natural predation to keep pest populations in check. Pesticide use is strongly discouraged as it harms beneficial insects such as ladybugs, dragonflies and praying mantis. Pesticide use also reduces pollinator and local butterfly population significantly.

In addition, prairie plants, whose survival depends on their extensive root systems, make excellent roadside plantings as their deep roots help to prevent soil erosion. There has also been some evidence that planting prairie plants leads to an improvement in poor worn-out soils.

The Green Center in the News

Calvary Cemetery Prairie Restoration Project Featured in the April 8 Economist magazine!

The Green Center has partnered with the Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Botanical Garden, The Nature Conservancy, and the Archdiocese of St. Louis Catholic Cemeteries to preserve and restore the last known native tallgrass prairie remnant in St. Louis, located at Calvary Cemetery. As part of this collaborative, The Green Center has coordinated outreach efforts, volunteer planting and invasive species removal days, and hands-on education in the Calvary Prairie.

For more information about this exciting project, call 314-725-8314 x 101 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

You can also read more online at The Economist.

Photo bar prairie pictures by Penney Bush-Boyce. Calvary fire picture by Carissa Gigliotti.