Leon M. Lederman Science Education Center
Fermilab Flora and Fauna Virtual Exhibit

Prairie Grasses

Prairie Resources - Exhibit Home

"What is it about prairies? What fascinates us so about the grasslands that gird our continent? Other landscapes certainly offer more spectacular scenery such as the Rockies, the canyons, the deserts, the ocean coastlines. By contrast, the prairies seem, well, flat - flat and somewhat monotonous-undeniably vast but not as picturesque as a redwood forest or a mountain stream.

"Yet the prairie holds a rightful place in American popular culture as one of our most distinctive and defining landscapes. Writers from Washington Irving to Willa Cather to Carl Sandburg have celebrated the prairie in prose and verse. Our national songs refer to the 'endless prairie' and 'the fruited plain.' Illinois, where only one-hundredth of 1 percent of its original grasslands remain intact today, proudly calls itself the Prairie State.

"Black-robed Jesuits were the first Europeans to see it and named the place as best they could. Prerie was their word for it. Back in France it meant grassland, a grassy orchard. So when Pere Marquette emerged from dark northern forests into the sunny, game-rich savannas of the Mississippi Valley in 1673, it may have been something like coming home, and he lovingly noted 'les belles preries' in his journal."1

The original tallgrass prairie comprised an area from northern Indiana to Texas to Saskatchewan, comprising about one-third of the country. Before settlement, about two-thirds of the vegetation in what is now the state of Illinois was native or natural grasslands.

The three grasses that dominated and named the tallgrass prairie were Big bluestem, Indian grass, and further downslope at the edge of wetter ground was prairie cord grass (because of its tough stems). It was also known as "rip gut" because of the finely serrated leaves like a knife. These were the three than named the tallgrass prairie because they could stand 9 feet tall.

But there were many other prairie grasses: little bluestem, prairie dropseed, porcupine grass, sideoats grama, needlegrass, etc. All told, the true prairie held about 150 kinds of grasses, although no more than 10 were dominant in their special niches.

At Fermilab, approximately 1,000 acres have been restored to prairie land. On this site the three grasses readily seen are Big bluestem, Indian grass, and switch grass. Also, not as easy to find, but here in limited quantities, are little bluestem, cord grass, prairie dropseed, and blue joint grass.

1 Madson, John. Tallgrass Prairie. 1993.
2 Voigt, John W. Prairie Plants of Illinois.