The Prairie: The First Landscape of Fall

As September begins we notice the subtle changes from summer to fall. The days are slowly getting shorter, monarchs abound, migrating bird species can be spotted, and the prairies are in full bloom.


Shaw Nature Reserve _Robin Powell-41
Photo by Robin Powell

The prairie is an ecosystem dominated by grasses and wildflowers with few trees or shrubs. Prairie once covered the central 1/3 of North America from western Ohio to Texas to the Rockies. Prairie plants, with roots penetrating deep into the soil, are adapted to the midsummer droughts of this region. Shaw Nature Reserve’s prairie plantings (on former farmland or pasture) represent this once-vast, nearly treeless ecosystem, of which less than 1% of the original remains intact.

Shaw Nature Reserve’s prairie plantings make up more than 300 acres, with more planned. More than 70 species of wildflowers bloom in the prairie beginning in May and ending in October. The leaves, stalks, and blossoms of these wildflowers present a fascinating variety of colors, shapes, and textures. Some species, such as goldenrods and sunflowers, spread across the prairie in bright yellow masses in late summer, while to discover other species may require more careful searching among the grasses.

Photo by Karen Fletcher

Prairies are important habitat for numerous animals—especially birds. Take a morning hike on the Nature Reserve prairie trail and you will see birds perched on yellow composites such as prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) and compass plant (Silphium laciniatum). Add these plants to your landscape and you will be rewarded with visitors such as the goldfinch (Spinus tristis). There are numerous native plants that attract birds.

Butterflies are also a common sight in the prairie- especially on asters and common milkweed. You can provide habitat for monarchs by adding milkweed to your landscape or if you already have one species, consider adding another species you don’t already have. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and marsh milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) can grow well in a variety of soil types including clay.

Shop for these and other native Missouri plants at the Shaw Nature Reserve’s annual Fall Wildflower Market held the second Friday of September.

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