Prairie Parcel Restoration

Plant Identification

Once your restoration is started and plants begin to germinate, the next issue you are faced with is the identification of what is growing.

From my experience, the seeds you planted should start germinating after about a week to ten days. Of course, this is dependent on the weather conditions and the amount of moisture in the soil. If you are watering regularly, you will get growth much more quickly than if you are just waiting for nature to take its course.

Identifying prairie plants as they germinate is very difficult. If you are an experienced botanist or an expert on prairie plants, your identification will still be a little more than an educated guess. In other words identifying prairie species from non-native species will take some time. Your ability to start identifying the prairie plants will grow almost in direct proportion to the growth of your prairie parcel. Their really is no urgency in identifying the plants because, unfortunately, that first growing season you will be mostly identifying non-native plant species.

To help you along with the process of identification, an illustrated plant guide has been added at the end this report. It includes most of the plants that you are likely to encounter as you restore your parcel.

The first growing season may prove to be a bit frustrating as you search for native prairie species. The non-native species can be likened to natures "sprinters." The non-native plants that grow first are usually the weedy grasses. They grow faster and begin reproducing to try and exploit the habitat as quickly as possible.

What I noticed after a month or two was that the grasses that dominated the parcel began to flower and produce seed. Once this happened it became very easy to distinguish these non-native varieties. They grew to a height of one to two feet, then started to produce seed.

Identifying grasses by their seed-reproducing structures is quite straightforward and easy. Almost every species has a distinctive flowering or seed-producing head, and with the help of commonly available guides and keys, you can identify them very quickly.

Identifying the native prairie grasses the first season will be a bit harder to do. Very rarely will the prairie grasses produce reproductive structures, which are the easiest means of identification, that first year. As a matter of fact, none of the prairie grasses in my parcel went to seed that first growing season. If you really want to, they can be identified using stem and leaf structures but it's not easy to do.(Refer to ID guide sheets for more detail.) It seems that the native prairie species spent most of their energies during that first year in developing extensive root structures and not growing that impressively above ground.

General Identification

Generally speaking, plants can first be identified by looking at their seed leaves. The plants that emerge with a pair of seed leaves belong to the dicot (two seed leaves) family. If the plant emerges with a single leaf or blade it is grouped as a monocot (one seed leaf). These groupings can help in initial identification because, the grasses belong to the monocots, where the forbs (plants other than grasses) usually belong to the dicots.

Another thing to keep in mind is that in most plants the seed leaves often do not give a true picture of what the adult plant will have for its leaves. You have to wait for at least the second pair of leaves to develop to have any hope of correctly identifying the plants. The second set of leaves usually takes another week or so to emerge after the initial seed leaves.

The Grasses

Since grasses are monocots, they emerge with a single blade or leaf and subsequent leaves seem to unfurl from a single stem. From observing native prairie grasses as they grow, they always germinate with leaves that appear to be much broader than the non-native lawn grasses you may be used to seeing. This broader leaf can be one of the earliest ways of identifying them.

Separating the different species of prairie grasses at the seedling stage is much tougher. If you observe very closely, the way the individual leaf blades connect and grow from the main stem of the grass plant, it can help to differentiate between them. For example, Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) has its individual blades or leaves grow from the main stem at a distinct and consistent 45-degree angle, compared to Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which has no such leaf angle and has a very hairy stem at its base. Each leaf appears to shoot almost straight up, but an inch or two above where it connects with the stem the leaf flops over and parallels the ground. (Look at the grass key for stem and leaf comparison of these two most commonly found prairie grasses.)

Other grass plants have similar characteristic structure at their leaf-stem connection. You can devise your own method of determining the different species by carefully observing their subtle but distinct differences. Trust me, they are there.

The Forbs

Identifying prairie forbs the first year can be even more difficult than identifying the grasses. The identification of forbs is commonly based on the pattern and shape of their leaves and the color and structure of the flowers they produce. The prairie forbs in my parcel also did not flower the first year so this made them even harder to identify.

The forbs in a young parcel are not nearly as common as the grass plants, so they are more noticeable when they do appear. Separating or identifying the prairie forbs from the non-native is fairly difficult, but with the help of a good illustrated identification guide it can be done.

A question usually arises here that needs some discussion. When plants start to appear in your parcel, how do you go about identifying them?

Most plant identification guides do include the non-native varieties, because unfortunately today, they outnumber the native ones. I have included with this report illustrations of the native plant species that you are most likely to find growing in your parcel. You will also find a "Watch for" list of plants that I have grouped by "waves." The first wave will include plants that appear early in the parcels development (first year or two), and the others I have listed as uncommon usually don't appear until much later.

When looking in your parcel for prairie species, keep in mind that many prairie plants have some noticeable differences from the more common non-native ones. You will be surprised, first of all, how easy it is to spot the non-native or weed plants just by their familiarity to you. For example, Queen Ann's Lace, White Clover, Dandelion, and Plantains are recognized quite easily.

Look for things that first appear different to your eye. Once you see something that looks different, inspect the leaves and feel their texture. Many prairie varieties have leaves that feel very rough, almost like sandpaper. When you find one, it is a clue that it may be a true prairie species. You can then use your keys and guidebooks to determine which species it is.

When looking for clues, characteristics like the fragrance of its crushed leaves can be a hint. Some prairie plants produce unusual, usually pleasant-smelling substances when their leaves are rolled between your fingers. Taller than average height is a dead giveaway that you should investigate them as a possible prairie candidate. Their healthy looking appearance, which signals a lack of predation, is still yet another clue. Prairie plants seem to "look" much healthier than the non-natives; their leaves don't look all "chewed up" in other words. The prairie plants will at first be the unusual ones, so identifying them really is not that hard. It's waiting for them to appear that is the tough part.


When your plants, both grasses and forbs, mature enough to begin producing flowers, you can use the flower color to help identify them. Most plant identification guides group plants first by the color of the flower they produce. The main color groups are white, yellow (a favorite color for most prairie species), orange and orange to red, maroon, pink (another big group), blue, and green. (Each guide has its own way of naming and organizing its color scheme, but this is the general pattern.) The trick here is that some of the colors are subtle and it may be hard to determine if the flower is one particular color or not. In these cases you will have to choose one of the colors and search the guides to eliminate one or the other color choices.

Once you determine a color, the guides usually divide up those plants by how their flowers are shaped and where on the plant the flowers are growing from (a spike at the top, from between the leaves etc.). Then they subdivide those plants by the actual number of the flower petals or shape of their seed heads. If you are using an illustrated guide, after you get to the point of determining all this, there is usually a picture of the plant you are trying to identify.

There are many books and guides which help you find the identification of plant species. You should choose the ones that you feel most comfortable and successful in using. The guides range from the very simple, with loads of colored illustrations, to non-illustrated classification key types which require that you know the name of every minute detail found on plants and their flowers. The choice depends on your level of expertise.

I would suggest starting with the simple guides, and then if they can't identify the species, turn to the more detailed keys and guides.

Keeping Track

A good practice to follow when you begin identifying your plants is to keep a "Watch For" list to record when and where in your parcel a certain species of plant turns up. This gives you the best indication of how well your parcel is doing, and what, (if any), plants, that are commonly found in prairie parcels are not growing in yours.

If you started your parcel from a matrix of seeds, it is quite possible that seeds of certain prairie plants may not have been included in your seed batch. The time of year a particular batch of seeds were harvested may not coincide with seed production of certain species, and they therefore wouldn't be included in that batch. All prairie plants do not produce seed at exactly the same time.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the habitat that your parcel is in may encourage or favor the growth of certain species while discouraging others. Prairies range in habitat between dry, mesic and wet, with ranges within those too, so what ultimately grows in your parcel really can't be judged by some ideal norm. Certain types of prairie plants prefer one or the other type of habitat. If it seems that a particular type of plant is flourishing, it may be an indicator that will help you identify what type of prairie habitat you have growing.

In closing this section on identification, I would like to summarize by saying that patience is the key word the first few years. Not until the third season will you start to see and feel that your parcel is indeed becoming a native prairie site. The waiting is well worth it when you begin to see the prairie slowly being born right before your eyes and knowing that you had a big part in developing it.

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