Precious Prairie: Experience One During your Next Visit to the Arboretum

By Horticulturist Hilary Wright

Did you know Ohio has native prairie habitats? These are indigenous habitats to Ohio, most of which are on the western part of the state. Lucky for us, there’s one in our ‘backyard’ here at the Arboretum. Part of the Myrtle S. Holden Wildflower Garden, the prairie habitat was established beginning in 1982. The prairie humbly began as a tract of land which would see literally tons of soil amendments, a disk plow, and an addition of wildflowers and grasses.

Prairie is a French term for meadow or grassland. Specifically, prairies are a community of native grasses and wildflowers with little to no trees or shrubs. Prairies are unique in that fire is important in managing this ecosystem by eliminating non-native or woody plant species, encouraging seed germination, and providing soil nourishment. But can fire harm existing, established plants? Of course not, the prairie is adapted to harsh conditions like those of fire or drought. The crown of the plants (where roots meet shoots) is situated just below the ground and are shielded from the fire. Further below the ground, roots of some species can extend to depths of 10 feet! What a fascinating adaptation to thrive.

Within our 1-acre prairie habitat, there are 3 types of prairies represented: the tall grass, gravel hillside, & sand prairie. The tall grass compromises a large percentage of our prairie. This was amended with organic matter, gravel, fill sand, limestone, & agricultural lime. Typically, this prairie has higher soil moisture. The tallest plants you will see are the compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) alongside prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinacium). The dominant grasses you will see in this prairie is big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

The gravel hillside resides within the tall grass prairie and has been amended with Blueberry Pond dredging, fill sand, and limestone. This habitat is to mimic the prairie of Adams County. Species in this space are tolerant of a higher soil pH in their native habitat. Here you will see purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), royal catchfly (Silene regia), and a mix of grasses.

The sand prairie is on the southeast corner of the largest prairie tract separated by the main path. This space was amended with 90 tons of sand. Some of the species you see here are butterfly weed, (Asclepias tuberosa), wild bergamont (Monarda fistulosa), and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis).

In the wildflower garden, there are a collection of plants sponsored by the Center for Plant Conservation. Their mission is to ultimately save plants from extinction, and they can do that by collaborating with sponsored institutions, such as the Holden Arboretum. Some of these plants are native to Ohio, or, in other midwestern states. In the prairie, one of those sponsored plants is Silene regia or Royal catchfly, a threatened species of Ohio. The status is determined through plant surveys throughout the state and reported to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

As delightful as the prairie is, the native habitat itself is in peril. The tall grass prairie range was once 170 million acres of North America – North to Canada reaching all the way into Texas. Now an estimated 4% of the habitat remains. Early on, settlers discovered the value of the fertile soil that the prairies had and the majority was converted for agricultural use. Other forms of habitat destruction ensued in the coming years, steadily shrinking the vast expanse of native prairies.