Sunday, July 25, 2010

Prairie Composition: grasses and forbs

Every prairie seems to have a unique "personality" reflected in their combination of grasses and forbs, the flowering plants that are not grasses, sedges or rushes. Prairie composition depends on the soil types, location and amount of moisture found in the prairie; many prairies are dry, but some are quite "wet."

Smooth Ox-eye (False sunflower), Heliopsis helianthoides and Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea offered a brilliant display at Guy's prairie.
The flowering forbs are the eye-candy of the prairie. These perennials and self-seeding annuals bloom at different times, creating a constant change in bloom cycles. A prairie that appears blue with Ohio Spiderwort in June, may look golden with Ox-eye in July.

The grasses are a major player in the prairie ecosystem, their tall stems create the support systems to prop up the gigantic nine-foot native sunflowers. Sorting grasses seem so overwhelming to beginning botany lovers, but here is one you can learn. A major component of many prairies is Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii.

USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Hitchcock, A.S. (rev. A. Chase). 1950. Manual of the grasses of the United States. USDA Miscellaneous Publication No. 200. Washington, DC.

This Big Bluestem line drawing from the USDA Plants data base, show the grass fruits form seed-heads or spikes which spread like "turkey feet" against the sky. The other common name for Big Bluestem is Turkey-foot grass.

The palate of prairie colors: rich pinks-to-purple from the Purple Coneflowers, yellows provided by Ox-eyes and Grey-headed coneflowers, and soft lavenders from the Wild Bergamot. (Follow that link to a great article on Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa- over at Blue Jay Barrens.)
There are many prairie "personalities" to be found throughout Ohio. Some are on public lands, in cemeteries, parks, nature preserves, and now they are being embraced by the private sector as a sensible alternative to mowing. No matter how big or small, wet or dry, grass to forb composition- they create a unique ecosystem for carbon sequestration and habitats for biodiversity. Prairie on!


  1. Is it ox eye sunflower? I think of ox eye daisy as an invasive scourge. My most vivid memory of the daisies is picking them when I was a kid (they were so pretty but smelled kinda funky) and getting a tick. Ick.

  2. Good catch Jan!! The Peterson guide calls them Oxeye, Ohio's FQAI calls them Smooth Ox-eye, most of my friends call them False Sunflower... and now you know why we use the Latin names so often, to clear up all these misunderstandings.

    Ox-eye Daisy was clearly a typo, my fingers must have added "daisy" as soon as I typed Ox-eye. Thanks for the correction- I have changed the post (for those of you still looking for the error :) Cheryl

  3. I'm glad you posted about false sunflower because you reminded me of some of the plants I had bought at the OSU/Marion prairie plant sale a year ago in May. They were cute and little. You should see them now! I buy things, put them in the ground, don't label them, and forget what I bought and have to figure it out all over again.

  4. I just spent the weekend with the Ohio Young Birders Club at Prairie Rose Farm in North Lewisburg. And I must say after this weekend I am so hooked on the whole ecosystem thing. The prairie is a beautiful thing and I must find a way to incorporate it into my life somehow. I am really hoping to get to the native plant conference somehow but I don't know if it will happen. Thanks for a great post.