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Ohio’s Tall Grass Prairies

Posted on 2/20/2015 by State Nature Preserves
Darby Plains Oak Savanna

Of all the natural landscapes and ecosystems Ohio had to offer around the time of European settlement, none have seen the same rate of disappearance quite like our grasslands. Over 99% of our state’s indigenous tall grass prairie has been affected by the activities of humankind and the inevitable march of natural succession. Originally representing nearly five percent (or 1,500 square miles) of Ohio’s vegetation at the time of settlement, these open, grass-dominated ecosystems are rather new to the state when viewed through a geologic lens. Around 8,000 years ago the climate shifted to a warmer, drier state and disrupted reforestation’s northern advancement following the Wisconsin glaciation. This allowed the western tall grass prairie to migrate eastward through Illinois, Indiana and establish itself in Ohio.

Purple Coneflowers (Smith Cemetery Prairie SNP)

Gradually the climate returned to a cooler, moister cycle that permitted forestation to pick up steam again. Soon the immense, contiguous tracts of prairie began to be recolonized and swallowed by forest. Considering how quickly open grassland can convert to shrubs and saplings and on into young forest, we have to thank in large part Native Americans for keeping western Ohio’s prairies around. They played a pivotal role in maintaining these grassland habitats with their frequent use of fire. Their cultures realized wild game was more attracted to the lush new-growth of freshly burned areas and that the open environment made hunting easier. This led to a consistent fire regime that kept woody invaders at bay and a key aspect to their livelihoods healthy and intact. Without their influence it’s doubtful any substantial tracts of prairie would have persisted up until the time of the European settlement.

Summer Prairie Wildflowers (Bigelow Cemetery Prairie SNP)

The first pioneers found western Ohio’s open tracts of warm season grasses and colorful summer wildflowers quite formidable. Dense seas of vegetation grew as tall as a person on horseback and the often wet conditions bred mosquitoes and other biting insects. Prairie was initially ignored for farming and development due to its lack of trees. The early thought was any land that didn’t support forest was infertile and not worth the time or effort to tame. Once that mindset was reversed and the prairie’s deep, rich black soil was bitten into by the steel plow, it wasn’t long before it had all but disappeared.

Bigelow Cemetery Prairie SNP

It’s not all doom and gloom for our native prairies though. Former prairie regions in the western half of Ohio such as the Darby Plains, Sandusky Plains, Oak Openings and inner Bluegrass of Adams County are home to some fine remnants and true gems. The Division of Natural Areas and Preserves has a scattering of preserves in these regions that the public can hike and explore. Sites such as Bigelow Cemetery Prairie, Smith Cemetery Prairie, Daughmer Savannah, Kitty Todd and Chaparral Prairie all give a glimpse of the former grandeur of Ohio’s prairie landscape.

Warm Season Prairie Grasses (L to R: Indian Grass, Big Bluestem, Prairie Dropseed, Prairie Cordgrass)

Ohio’s prairies come in a variety of shapes, sizes and plant compositions but it’s the presence, or rather domination of grasses that tie them all together. Species like Indian grass and big bluestem are the most synonymous with our tall grass prairies. Other associates such as little bluestem, switchgrass, prairie cordgrass and prairie dropseed mix in as well depending on the site(s). These species are all known as warm season grasses due to reaching flowering maturity in the latter half of summer and early autumn.

Royal Catchfly (Bigelow Cemetery Prairie SNP)

Despite grasses dominating just about any prairie you see there’s always a lot more going on within. Come summer a profusion of wildflowers awaken and create a dazzling display of vibrant yellows, reds, purples and pinks. Yet of all the indigenous forbs that call Ohio’s prairies home, arguably none is as striking as the royal catchfly (Silene regia). Its mesmerizing shade of red is impossible to miss when in full bloom and is prized by the ruby-throated hummingbird. To see this state-threatened rarity at its best, a visit to Bigelow Cemetery Prairie state nature preserve during mid-July is a must.

Daughmer Savannah SNP

Prairies are traditionally viewed as treeless expanses of grassland but that doesn’t always hold true. Some contain a higher concentration of trees occurring within but still nowhere near enough to operate or be classified as forest. These special habitats are known as savannahs. You’re probably most familiar with the term from the ones in Sub-Saharan Africa, but we have them here in Ohio too. Ours are known as oak savannah for the bur, white and post oaks scattered within. This kind of habitat is excruciatingly rare in the state today. Daughmer Savannah state nature preserve in the historic Sandusky Plains of Crawford County is our best remaining example and well worth a visit any time of the year. Daughmer’s immense bur oaks in a sea of grasses, sedges and intermittent seasonal wetlands are sure to impress.

Juniper Hairstreak on Rattlesnake Master (Chaparral Prairie SNP)

It’s not just all about the plants when it comes to our prairies. A wide array of wildlife call these treasured grasslands home as well. Uncommon Ohio mammals such as the badger and thirteen-lined ground squirrel can still be found throughout our prairie regions today, while the bison and elk have long since been extirpated. Birds like the bobolink, Henslow’s sparrow, bobwhite quail and barn owl all rely on open, large expanses of prairie. Countless hundreds of insects and butterflies/moths rely on prairies for nectar sources and host plants too. Even rare reptiles like the plains gartersnake, at its easternmost known global locality in Marion and Wyandot counties, reside in Ohio’s prairie remnants.

Ohio Chief Botanist, Rick Gardner walking through Chaparral Prairie SNP

Even though less than one percent of our state’s native prairie landscape exists today, I hope this post has shown just how diverse and incredible that tiny sliver left truly is. With so much of our prairie’s former grandeur long gone, it becomes increasingly more important that we protect and manage what does remain for forthcoming generations to visit and enjoy. Natural succession, invasive species, agricultural practices and climate change will only continue to put pressure on these fragile and fragmented habitats going into the future. Yet the battle at hand is entirely worth the fight. I hope this has encouraged you to get out and see our prairie preserves within the system for yourself. You never know what you’re going to discover. Thanks for reading and see you out there!

Andrew Gibson

Your Refund Preserves

Learn more about how you can help Ohio’s prairies by contributing a portion of your state tax refund to the State Nature Preserves Fund