Missouri's Tallgrass Prairies
Prairies are natural communities dominated by perennial grasses and forbs (that is, wildflowers and other broad-leaved, nonwoody plants), with scattered shrubs and very few trees. For an introduction to the prairie natural community in general, visit Grasslands, Prairies, and Savannas in Related Habitats below.
Missouri prairies are called tallgrass prairies because they are dominated by warm-season grass species that range from 2 to more than 6 feet in height.
Missouri lies just east of the Great Plains of North America, one of the world’s greatest grasslands. Being to the east of this vast region, and receiving more moisture and having richer soils than those lands, our native prairies support taller grass species. The historic region where tallgrass prairie occurred stretches from Manitoba southeast to eastern Indiana, southwest to northeastern Oklahoma, and north along the eastern portions of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. The Great Plains grasslands to our west are classified as mixed-grass and, farther west, shortgrass prairies, as the lands become increasing dry, and allowing only shorter grasses to dominate.
Types of Tallgrass Prairies
Twelve types of prairie have been described for Missouri. They are described based on
- Soil substrate (loess/glacial till, limestone/dolomite, chert, sandstone, shale, sand) — which reflects the location in Missouri
- Soil moisture (dry, dry-mesic, mesic, swale, hardpan, wet-mesic, wet)
- Landscape position (upland, bottomland)
Specifically, the twelve types are:
- Dry loess/glacial till prairie
- Dry-mesic loess/glacial till prairie
- Mesic loess/glacial till prairie
- Dry limestone/dolomite prairie
- Dry-mesic limestone/dolomite prairie
- Dry-mesic chert prairie
- Dry-mesic sandstone/shale prairie
- Prairie swale
- Sand prairie
- Hardpan prairie
- Wet-mesic bottomland prairie
- Wet bottomland prairie.
Here, we will focus on five generalized kinds of prairies that are found in Missouri: loess hill prairie, glaciated prairie, unglaciated prairie, sand prairie, and wet prairie.
1. Loess Hill Prairie
In extreme northwestern Missouri, loess hill prairie endures on the magnificent loess hills rising more than 200 feet above the nearby land.
Missouri’s steep-sloped loess hill prairies occur in the extreme northwestern corner of the state, along the Missouri River floodplain and other streams. Loess (pronounced “luss”) is ancient, fine-grained, windblown soil, and this fertile soil underlies much of northern Missouri. In northwestern Missouri, it forms magnificent hills rising more than 200 feet above the nearby land.
The dry loess hill prairies that endure on the south- and west-facing parts of these hills harbor plants that are common to the nearby Great Plains region but are rare or endangered in Missouri. Some of these include large beardtongue, thimbleweed, downy painted cup, soapweed, scarlet gaura, low milk vetch, rough false foxglove, and skeleton plant. Other wildflowers include silky aster, ground plum, and foxtail dalea. Because of the harsh conditions of the loess hills, most grasses grow only 3 feet tall. Dominant grasses include hairy grama grass, blue grama, and sideoats grama.
Some of the animals specially known from loess hill prairies are the swift tiger beetle, mermiria and Packard’s grasshoppers, and the plains hognose snake.
You can see loess hill prairies at Star School Hill Prairie , Jamerson McCormack , and Brickyard Hill conservation areas.
2. Glaciated Prairie
At Helton Prairie, you will catch a glimpse of what many early European settlers found in Missouri north of the Missouri River.
Missouri’s glacial till prairies are primarily found in the Central Dissected Till Plains, or Glaciated Plains region, north of the Missouri River. These rolling prairies typically have deep, well-drained, highly fertile soils formed by loess and other historic glacial deposits. These fertile soils were especially attractive to farmers at the time of European settlement — so most of these prairies were long ago converted into crop fields for agricultural production.
When you visit a glaciated prairie, notice how upland, drier sites have different plant communities than lower, wetter, mesic, or bottomland sites, which typically have taller, lusher vegetation.
Plant communities of glacial till prairies are dominated by tallgrass species such as Indian grass and big bluestem, which grow from 4 to 6 feet tall, as well as forbs like compass plant and pale purple coneflower.
Animal communities in glacial till prairies are diverse, including generalists of grassy places (such as American badger and various gartersnakes) as well as habitat specialists (such as dickcissel, bobolink, northern harrier, regal fritillary butterfly, and Topeka shiner). Four animal species of greatest conservation need are found mainly in this prairie type: bobolink, Henslow’s sparrow, northern prairie skink, and Franklin’s ground squirrel.
Places to see glacial till prairies include Grand River Grasslands, Helton Prairie, Mystic Plains, Pony Express, Prairie Forks, and Tarkio Prairie conservation areas.
3. Unglaciated Prairie
Friendly Prairie Conservation Area, Pettis County, Missouri
Missouri Department of Conservation
Unlike the glacial till and loess hill prairies, unglaciated prairies, found south of the Missouri River, were not formed by glacial soil deposition. Thus soils are generally shallower than those on northern prairies, often exhibiting exposed bedrock. This is the most common remaining prairie type because its rocky and relatively infertile soils have protected it from conversion to agriculture. Prairies to the north, on deeper, richer, glaciated soils, were nearly all changed into cropland.
Historically in this part of Missouri, prairie dominated the highest, flattest areas and graded into post oak barrens and savanna on sideslopes and into draws. The Osage Plains ecoregion, which supports the vast majority of Missouri’s unglaciated prairies, stretches from Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas into the southern and western portions of Missouri. This region is characterized by a flat to gently rolling landscape underlain mainly by Pennsylvanian-age shale, sandstone, and limestone. Grasslands in the southern portion of Missouri are generally found in this Osage Plains region or near the Osage Plains border in the western Ozarks, an area called the Springfield Plateau.
As with glaciated prairie, plant communities within a tract differ based on landscape position: upland, drier areas with shorter grasses and other plants, and lower, moister slopes, draws, and bottomlands with taller, lusher plants.
Overall, prairie plant communities in the Osage Plains and Western Ozarks are dominated by tallgrass species, but shorter grasses such as little bluestem, prairie dropseed, and sideoats grama may be more prevalent in some areas. Forb species include blue false indigo, hoary puccoon, ashy sunflower, sky blue aster, Maximilian sunflowers, compass plant, lead plant, blazing star, purple prairie clover, flowering spurge, and coneflowers. Plant species of greatest conservation need include Barbara’s buttons and Mead’s milkweed.
Animal species of greatest conservation need that can be found in these prairies or associated prairie streams include the northern crawfish frog, Great Plains skink, southern prairie skink, blacknose shiner, Topeka shiner, greater prairie-chicken, Henslow’s sparrow, regal fritillary, and prairie mole cricket.
Several unglaciated prairies are on public lands. Most are quite small. For a first visit, try Prairie State Park, Taberville and Wah’Kon-Tah Prairies, or Paintbrush Prairie.
4. Sand Prairie
The eastern spadefoot is rare in our state due to draining of wetlands and loss of native sand prairies.
Sand prairies exist on natural levees and terraces with very little sloping on all aspects. Soils tend to be well-drained, very deep, and low in nutrients and organic matter. Additionally, sand prairies have highly erodible, often arid soils.
In Missouri, sand prairie habitat is restricted to areas bordering the Mississippi River in only the southeastern and northeastern regions of Missouri. Even in these areas, high-quality sand prairies are rare. Less than 2,000 acres remain in southeast Missouri, for example, and all have been altered for agricultural purposes. Therefore, in Missouri, sand prairies are listed as a critically endangered habitat and are among the rarest natural communities in the state.
The plants and animals that live in sand prairies are adapted to harsh conditions. Examples of plants that flourish in this habitat are little bluestem, jointweed, sand hickory, and Hall’s bulrush, as well as various fungi, lichens, and mosses. Additionally, several Missouri animal species of conservation concern occupy these communities, such as the American badger, dusty hog-nosed snake, eastern spadefoot, barn owl, and northern harrier. Many insects occur in Missouri’s sand prairies, including native bees and sand cicadas.
Currently, MDC and several other conservation partners are taking action to protect and enhance the few remaining remnants of sand prairies. Conservation opportunities identified in the state include the Frost Island Sand Prairies in the northeastern Missouri, and the Southeast Sand Ridge Grasslands in the southeast.
5. Wet Prairie
Swamp milkweed is one of the notable plants to be seen in the wet bottomland prairie habitat at Ripgut Prairie Natural Area in Bates County.
Wet prairies often border marshes or are associated with floodplains, lower slopes of prairies, or areas with groundwater seepage. They have saturated soils through much of the growing season due to high clay content, and they have seasonally high water tables and standing water present during the spring and winter or after heavy rains. They occur in the Glaciated Plains and Osage Plains.
About 99.6 percent of wet prairies have been destroyed, making them a critically imperiled community type. Pollution, siltation, and changes in the area’s hydrology, such as channelizing or impounding streams and alterations to increase soil drainage, and lack of proper use of prescribed fire, endanger wet prairies, causing woody plants like buttonbush, willows, silver maple, green ash, and cottonwood to encroach on the prairie tracts.
Wet prairies have a dense cover of perennial grasses mixed with forbs and sedges. Typical plants are prairie cordgrass (also called ripgut or slough grass), blue flag, swamp milkweed, and many types of sedges and rushes. Animals include American bittern, yellow rail, sedge wren, meadow vole, meadow jumping mouse, and plains leopard frogs. Several snakes include foxsnakes, ribbonsnake and other gartersnakes, watersnakes, and the state-endangered prairie massasauga (a type of rattlesnake).
You can see wet prairie at Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge, Douglas Branch, Four Rivers, and Flight Lake conservation areas, and at Ripgut Prairie Natural Area.
Plants and Animals
Many plants and animals live in a wide variety of open, sunny, grassy areas, so naturally they are found in prairies as well as common pastures and old fields. But many other plants and animals are restricted to prairies, or even to certain subtypes of prairies, and they are found almost nowhere else. Many of these species are declining because there is so little prairie habitat left.
Several broad-ranging mammals, birds, and insects can move about among all kinds of grassy areas, so it’s no surprise to find them in prairies. Examples of animals that can live in many kinds of grassy, open areas include black-and-yellow garden spider, differential grasshopper, great spangled fritillary butterfly, ornate box turtle, northern bobwhite, dickcissel, bobolink, brown-headed cowbird, eastern meadowlark, scissor-tailed flycatcher, eastern cottontail, and coyote. Some of these animals’ native home is the prairie, but fortunately they often can survive in less specific habitats.
With their numbers dwindling, greater prairie-chickens need strong conservation support.
Many animals, however, are tied to certain plant species, plant communities, or environmental conditions found only on tallgrass prairies, so they can survive and thrive only on tallgrass prairies. Examples of prairie specialists include the regal fritillary butterfly, prairie mole cricket, pink katydid, eastern tiger salamander, northern crawfish frog, western narrow-mouthed toad, bullsnake, northern harrier, upland sandpiper, horned lark, Henslow’s and grasshopper sparrows, and greater prairie-chicken.
As many as 100 different kinds of ants and more than 150 kinds of bees live in tallgrass prairies. They, plus butterflies, moths, beetles, and thousands of other different insects, do much of the work on the prairie: they are important pollinators, help build soil by cycling nutrients, and provide food for birds and other animals.
Many tallgrass prairie species are interconnected so closely that the disappearance of one could mean the end of others. The grassland (or prairie) crayfish, for instance, builds burrows into the ground that can be six feet deep. Northern crawfish frogs and other animals rely on these tunnels as cool retreats in hot, dry weather.
The American bison once ranged through the Great Plains and tallgrass prairies in enormous herds. These animals could quickly and completely graze a given area, but because the presettlement grassland ecosystem was so vast, the bison could migrate constantly to ungrazed areas. In fact, their occasional, random trampling and stripping of vegetation from lands was one of the natural disturbances, like fire, that maintained the prairie ecosystem, preventing trees from getting established.
The bright red of Indian paintbrush colors our native prairielands.
The dominant plants on our native prairies and savannas are warm-season grasses. There is a mind-boggling variety of native grasses, but big and little bluestem, Indian grass, and sideoats grama are the superstars. Their chemical pathways for photosynthesis make them especially efficient for harvesting the sun’s energy in midsummer.
Many native prairie plants, both grasses and forbs, are perennials with incredibly deep root systems. In fact, most of their mass is belowground. Compass plant is an example; this member of the sunflower family can reach 7 feet in height, but its roots can reach 14 feet below the surface. White wild indigo grows about 3 or 4 feet tall, and buffalo grass doesn’t reach even a foot in height, but the roots of both penetrate 7 feet down into the earth. Cylindric blazing star’s roots reach 15 feet deep. Over thousands of years of living and dying, these plants with their deep roots built up some of the most fertile soils on earth.
Some native forbs that characteristically occur in prairie habitats include
- Aster family: American feverfew, Ashy sunflower, compass plant, coneflowers, blazing stars, prairie dock, and purple-headed sneezeweed
- Pea family: goat’s rue, long-bracted wild indigo, purple prairie clover, sensitive briar, white wild indigo, and leadplant
- Milkweeds: butterfly weed, green-flowered milkweed, Mead’s milkweed, prairie milkweed, whorled milkweed
- Also: blue-eyed grass, celestial lily, closed gentian, field milkwort, hoary puccoon, Indian paintbrush, prairie alum root, prairie parsley, rattlesnake master, rose gentian, wild hyacinth, wood betony, yarrow — and many, many more.
Plants That Invade Prairies
Many plants that are common in disturbed or altered grassy areas, such as roadsides and pastures, can quickly invade native prairie, especially when native fire regimes are not maintained. Cool-season grasses like tall fescue, woody plants such as cedar and sumacs, and a variety of common pasture weeds, many of them nonnatives, can get established.
The good news is that, except in the cases of the most aggressive invasive plants, native prairie is surprisingly resilient. The tall, warm-season grasses and the tough sod of established prairie can outcompete weedy nonnative plants like Queen Anne’s lace, with proper management. Because the native plants have their growth tips at or below ground level, fire doesn’t harm them, though with proper timing, it can wipe out the plants that don’t belong.