Prairie to Plow

Before the advent of the plow, prairies once covered a large portion of central and western North America. While much of this area has been converted into farmland or housing and commercial developments, there is a growing awareness of the need to preserve our natural environment. The prairie plantings located on the grounds of the museum are an attempt to give visitors a glimpse at Morrison County prairies.

Defined as a large area of flat or rolling grassland, prairies are home to a wide variety of plants. Composed mainly of grasses, prairies also support numerous flowering plants and the occasional shrub or tree. The main body of prairie in Morrison County is located in a corridor along the Mississippi River. Scattered remnants can be found elsewhere in the county, particularly in the area between Little Rock and Royalton. The museum and Lindbergh State Park are located on land that was formerly savannah. A savannah is a grassland with scattered trees and brush that acts as a transition area between prairie and forest.

Early settlers viewed the North American prairie as a “Great American Desert.” Many believed the lack of trees meant the soil was poor. Once the fertility of prairie soil was recognized, thousands of acres were quickly transformed into farmland. The rich soil and ease of clearing, in comparison to wooded areas, made prairies well-suited for agriculture. According to the November 1899 issue of Nichol’s Headlight, a publication promoting settlement in Morrison County, the area was “unsurpassed” in natural resources. “It’s climate is perfect, its surface mildly undulating, and…the soil…throughout the country as a whole, it is most fertile.”

Though prairies continue to disappear, due both to natural occurrences and human intervention, they have been valued throughout history for their natural beauty and abundant resources. Various prairie plants, for example, have been used for decoration, building material, medicine, and food or beverage. Indians, and some early settlers, helped to maintain prairies by setting periodic wildfires. This practice encouraged plant growth and made travel easier. Wildfires reduce the above-ground plant parts into a nutrient-rich ash that fertilizes the soil. They also prevent trees from taking over and turning the grassland into a forest. Most prairie plants have an extensive root system which allows them to survive fires and harsh weather conditions.

Early botanists, some of whom were school teachers, also valued prairies. The information they gathered helped to encourage the growing awareness of a need to preserve America’s natural heritage. In 1872, for example, Yellowstone Park opened as the first national park in the United States. At the state level, a botanical survey was sponsored by the legislature in 1889 as part of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Minnesota. In 1925, the legislature passed Minnesota Statute 17.23, which provides for the conservation of wildflowers. Many of Minnesota’s parks and gardens, such as the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, were established to preserve and protect native plants.

During the last few decades, the environmental and ecological awareness movements have spurred an interest in gardening with native plants. Wildflower gardens, prairie plantings, and the restoration of native landscapes have become popular trends. The prairie plantings at the museum were designed and are maintained by Prairie Restorations, Inc. Based in Princeton, Minnesota, Prairie Restorations is dedicated to designing, restoring, and maintaining native plant communities.

The prairie plantings at the museum give a sample of the rich blend of grasses and flowering plants that are native to Morrison County. Prairie grasses that can be found at the museum included Side-Oats Grama, Blue Grama, Indian Grass, Little Bluestem, and Big Bluestem. Big Bluestem is a four to six foot tall prairie grass that provides good forage for grazing animals. Also known as Turkeyfoot, because of the three-toed appearance of the seed-head, Big Bluestem has been used in fever medications and as thatch for Indian lodges. Side Oats Grama, a drought resistant grass, takes its name from the location of the seeds on the side of the stem. Latin for grass, “grama” often forms part of prairie grass names.

Flowering prairie plants provide a showy display from early spring to late fall. Pasque Flower, which blooms in early spring, is a pale purple flower with short hairy stems. A member of the Buttercup Family, it blooms during the Easter, or Paschal, season. Pasque Flower is also known as Wild Crocus, Wind Flower, Easter Flowers, and Goslings. Another spring wildflower, Purple Avens, is a low reddish plant with nodding purple flowers. More commonly known as Prairie Smoke or Grandpa’s Whiskers, it has hair-like seeds that resemble flowing smoke on windy days.

Examples of summer flowering prairie plants include Black-eyed Susan, Bergamot, Purple Coneflower, and Lead Plant. Black-eyed Susan is a sturdy flower with a dark central cone and bright yellow rays. Also known as Brown Betty, English Bull’s-eye, and Poor-land Daisy, it has been used for making dye and in cold and kidney medications. Another prairie flower that blooms in the summer is Bergamot. More commonly known as Horsemint, Bergamot has a strong fragrance that is a blend of mint and citrus. Bergamot’s leaves can be made into a wild tea and Bergamot tea was used by colonists during the tea boycott of the American Revolution. Purple Coneflower, a one to two foot tall prairie plant, has long-lasting blooms composed of a raised spiny center surrounded by purple rays. According to Lycurgus Moyer, a pioneer botanist in Minnesota, Purple Coneflower was also known as Thirst Plant. When there was a lack of drinking water, early travelers chewed its roots to increase the flow of salvia and quench their thirst.(1) Lead Plant, another one to two foot tall prairie plant, has erect stems that are tipped by spikes of small blue flowers. Lead Plant is also known as Buffalo Bellow Plant, because it blooms during the bison rutting season, and Devil’s Shoestrings, because its thick rootstalks were difficult to plow.

The tallest prairie flowers are those that bloom in the fall. Among the fall blooming plants at the museum are Rough Blazing Star, Heath Aster, and Showy Goldenrod. Rough Blazing Star grows one to three feet tall and has unbranched spike-like clusters of purple flowers. A favorite food of Monarch Butterflies, it has been used in medicines for stomach ache and diarrhea. Also known as Rough Gayfeather, Colic Root, and Devil’s Bite, Rough Blazing Star has a special significance for Omaha Indians. Believing that it was associated with strength and speed, they fed Rough Blazing Star to their horses or chewed its bulb-like root and blew into their horse’s nostrils. Heath Aster, a bushy grayish plant with many small white flowers, has an extensive root system that extends up to eight feet into the soil. Because of its late bloom, Heath Aster is also known as Frostweed Aster or Michaelmas Daisy. Another prairie plant which blooms in the fall is Showy Goldenrod, a one to three foot tall plant with yellow plume-like clusters. A member of one of the most useful prairie plant families, it has been used for medicine, dye, and tea.

Prairie plants are finding increasingly limited spaces in which to grow. The present rate of land development is rapidly reducing the nation’s already limited plant population. Prairie plants are complex species which have many values, some of which may not yet be fully understood. As we increase our understanding of the richness and diversity of our world, I hope that an appreciation for our prairie heritage continues to grow.

by Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2000, Morrison County Historical Society

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