Prairies and Grasslands

We asked fellow Iowans who have experience in the fields of natural resources, either as professionals or amateurs, to contribute an essay related to one of the main Iowa Master Conservationist Program topics. The following essay was contributed by Cindy Hildebrand. Cindy is a central Iowa prairie enthusiast who works on prairie issues and on native and reconstructed prairie areas on her land.

Charm and Mystery - Tallgrass Prairie in a Cornbelt State

"All the charm and mystery of that prairie world comes back to me, and I ache with an illogical desire to recover it and hold it, and preserve it in some form for my children."  (Hamlin Garland, Iowa settler and author)

Iowa's rural landscape is traditionally known for agricultural beauty and order. Grant Wood's paintings of Iowa show a rolling patchwork of geometric cropfields, interspersed with neat farmsteads, uniform pastures and lollipop woodlands. The modern Iowa landscape is even more ordered, with corn and soybeans as the dominant cover.

Against this background, prairies challenge us to appreciate a different kind of beauty.  More Iowans are accepting that challenge, and our appreciation usually increases as we learn about what we're experiencing . Most prairie enthusiasts enjoy the bright yellows of an early-stage prairie reconstruction, dominated by black-eyed susan and gray-headed coneflower. But even more, we enjoy the subtle beauty of a high-quality original prairie, with half-hidden gems like hoary puccoon and downy gentian.

Prairies in Iowa

To fully appreciate prairies, we may need to rethink traditional ideas about what makes landscapes attractive. Some gardeners need to get used to the idea that in a prairie reconstruction, the plant damage caused by insects and disease is part of the system and provides its own visual interest, including colorful rusts and aphids.

Some farmers need to get used to the shagginess and size of many prairie plants, which can look weedy to rowcrop-oriented eyes. Landscape architects may need to accept the refusal of many prairie plants to stay put in defined areas.  In Iowa, where most of the landscape is carefully controlled, prairie plants insist on being wild.

The classic writer Aldo Leopold referred to the value of "a refined taste in natural objects."  In prairies, that refined taste means enjoying the full spectrum of prairie wildlife, including plants that are very plain by garden standards, and ground beetles and ants as well as birds and mammals. 

"Refined taste" can also refer to learned appreciation of rarer species.  Prairie enthusiasts may find it hard to separate our aesthetic enjoyment of the sweet scent of great plains ladies-tresses from our  knowledge that such orchids are markers of good original prairies.  The soft clipped song of a rare Henslow's sparrow is not as melodic as the trill of a meadowlark, but to a knowledgeable birder, it's a beautiful sound.

The health of the Iowa landscape may depend partly on prairie aesthetics.  Researchers know that prairie plantings are one of the most effective ways to cleanse water.  Plantings are needed not only along rural waterways, but in town parks, roadways, and backyards.  That won't be possible unless many more Iowans understand and appreciate prairie beauty.   

Ironically, the European settlers who plowed up millions of acres of prairie understood  the appeal of what they were destroying.  One wrote in 1840, "The whole of the surface of these beautiful plains is clad... with every imaginable variety of color..." 

We can never again experience the prairie landscape known by those early settlers.  But through appreciation of surviving original prairies and the creation of good prairie plantings, we can enjoy more of our prairie heritage and leave our children a richer legacy.