Natural Prairies

Natural Prairies

Natural Prairies  

What is a prairie?

A Prairie is a type of grass when the covers about one fourth of the earth surface and is the largest habitat in North America. Prairies usually form on level or smooth rolling landscapes. These areas have dry or cold seasons that kill plants so they can burn. Most of the prairies in North America developed in places where the amount of rainfall each year is low. The Illinois prairies receive enough rainfall to support large trees. However, frequent fires stop trees from overcoming prairie plants.

How did Illinois prairies form?

google map

Most of the land in the northern two-thirds of Illinois flat. The land took this shape after glaciers moved through. These giant walls of ice formed and spread at a time when the climate in North America was much colder than it is now. The massive weight and grinding action of the glaciers push the soil and flattened it. Four major glaciers covered parts of Illinois during this period, which ended about 12,000 years ago. One of the glaciers, the Illinoisan, moved South to Carbondale in southern Illinois. This was as far South as any glacier in the United States reached at this period of glaciation

As the climate warmed and the glaciers began to melt, huge amounts of water flowed from them. These moving waters helped to form today's River valleys, especially the large rivers of Illinois, and Mississippi. The waters also carried lots of sand and gravel. This load of rock material was dropped to the river bottom when the river current slowed. Eventually the glaciers produced less water in the rivers became smaller. Some of the material carried by the rivers was now out of the water. Along the Illinois, Mississippi, green and Kankakee rivers, sand prairies were formed by this process.

Types of Prairie

prairies are made of a mixture of grasses and Forbes. Forbes our plants with broad leaves like wildflowers while grasses have narrow leaves. Grasses of the dominant plant type in the Prairie. To compete with grasses, some Forbes send the roots further into this world and the grasses, so that they may reach water and nutrients that the grasses cannot. Short Forbes plume early in the spring before the grasses begin to grow, while taller Forbes bloom later in the season.                             









Prairies are classified as wet, messic or dry. What prairies have much water present in the soil. Plants like cord grass, Martin mint and new England Astor grow here. Messick prairies have a medium amount of water during the year. Big Bluestem, Black-eyed Susan, Compass Plant, Rattlesnake Master and Yellow Coneflower live in the Messick prairies. Dry prairies are inhabited by such plants as little Bluestem, Lead plant, Purple Prairie Clover in a rough Blazing Star.

Woodbine Park Prairie Estates is classified as a Mesic Prairie

Prairie distribution In 1820, Illinois had 22 million acres of Prairie and 14 million acres of forest. Prairies were mainly in the northern two thirds of the state, and forest in the southern one third. All but nine current Illinois counties had large prairies in central Illinois. Trees could only be found in scattered areas called Prairie Grove's. Illinois was the first state that settlers from the East traveled to that had such large areas of grasslands the settlers are responsible for calling Illinois the Prairie state.

By 1900 most of the Illinois Prairie was gone. The development of the self-cleaning steel plow and the richness of the soil meant that most of this land was converted to agricultural use. By 1978 less than 2300 acres of high quality Prairie remained. Most of the undisturbed Prairie sites in Illinois today may be found along railroads, in Pioneer cemeteries or on sites unsuitable for farming.

Prairie plants

When settlers first arrived in Illinois, many believe that the Prairie soil was poor since no trees grunt. But the soil was and is very rich in nutrients. Bacteria and fungi break down dead organisms to return nutrients to the soil. Grasses grow so densely on the Prairie that the soil is packed with the roots this Prairie side helps to conserve both soil and water. It acts like a sponge when rain falls. Some settlers even use side to build the houses.

Woodbine Park Prairie Estates plants and animals






Big Bluestem - state prairie grass. This plant may grow to a height of 12 feet.

Compass plant - this plant has leaves in the north south arrangement to allow the most sunlight to be absorbed. The plant may grow 10 feet tall.

Black-eyed Susan - these plants are covered with hair-like structures that make it rough to the touch

Downey Gentians - flowers are blush purple. When Downey Gentians our phone today, it means that the area is undisturbed







Rattlesnake Master - as the name implies, this plant was used to make a drink as an antidote to rattlesnake venom. Pioneers believed that if this plant was present in the Eastern Massasauga, a Prairie rattlesnake, must be near. Prairie animals need to be able to withstand the changing weather. Danger from predators, dry conditions and other hazards like fire impact Prairie animals. To meet these challenges many Prairie animals are able to burrow underground, run fast, fly or blend in with their surroundings. Prairie birds must often nest on the ground since there are few trees available. The natural Prairies found at Woodbine Park Prairie Estates, our home to many Prairie animals.

The Northern Harrier  is an endangered Illinois raptor. This hawk has slim, long wings and a long tail. It's white rump patch makes it easy to identify.

The Monarch Butterfly, is that the Illinois state insect and lives on the Prairie. The female lays her eggs on milkweed's which the larva they used for food when they hatch. The Monarch is a migratory butterfly.

The Sedge Wren builds its nest in the prairie grasses. This tiny bird eats insects and spiders that it finds in the grasses or on the ground.

The 13 Lined Ground Squirrel eats stems, leaves, seeds and roots of Prairie plants and insects. This tiny road and lives in Burrows it digs into rich soil. The Burrows can be as deep as 1 1/2 feet.

The American Toad is a Prairie amphibian. Tolls are active at dusk or at night, seeking insects and worms to eat. Females tend to be larger than males.

Endangered and threatened species of the Prairie

Because much of the Prairie has been destroyed, many of the organisms that depend on it for their habitat have been forced to move to new habitats or become very scarce themselves. Did you know that bison and elk once lived in Illinois? They were the largest mammals of the Illinois Prairie. Many were killed by pioneers for food and heights. Others lost their habitat to agriculture and settlement. With the loss of habitat, these animals banished from Illinois.

Today the list of threatened or endangered Prairie species in Illinois includes plants, butterflies, frogs, snakes, birds and mammals. Without the large continuous grasslands,, these organisms and animals will find survival difficult. Prairie restoration efforts like those at Woodbine Park Prairie Estates will help keep these organisms and animals alive. 

Prairie Burning

Prairie burning is the controlled setting of a fire using existing natural fuels like, vegetation and plant litter, to burn a specified area under appropriate environmental conditions, in order to achieve management goals. Prescribed burning is recognized as a valuable tool for the restoration management of some natural communities. Prairie fire is a natural part of nearly all Midwestern ecosystems. Fire opens the soil to the warming effects of the sun, so that high soil temperatures and high soil moisture levels occur simultaneously, favoring germination, and releasing dwarf and dormant plants.

Fire in the new planting will eliminate undesired woody and weedy plant growth if it occurs with any frequency. Deciduous trees, shrubs, and perennial weeds expend large amounts of their carbohydrate reserves from their roots during their initial spring growth. If these are burned off after they have leafed out, additional demands are made on already reduced food supply. Two of three consecutive burns may kill these plants a single bar may be sufficient to control small trees which do not re-sprout, such as eastern red cedar.

Prairie fire also competitively favors the native species at the expense of the introduced species. Fire lengthens the growing season for warm season Prairie plants by exposing the soil surface, and raising soil temperature earlier in the year. The litter of an unburnt surface reflects the warming rays of the sun, maintaining also temperatures in favoring the cool season weedy species. Bring also favors our need of cool season species over fire intolerant introductions.

                                           4790 Janine Way  |  Mt. Zion, Illinois 62549