Putting Down Roots in the Prairie

The roots of the leadplant chart a course toward the center of the earth. Thirsty and longing for stability, they branch, spread and burrow further and further into the soil. Encountering a rock or a flat pan of clay, they will pause, turn, and then continue their travels laterally. In sandy soils, where rainwater is a quickly vanishing commodity, leadplant can easily grow roots 16 feet deep. Above ground, its delicate grayish purple blooms stand only two or three feet tall.

Lead plant’s deep-roots help it to survive drought and fire on the prairie.

Finding leadplant growing deep in your back-forty is an indicator of remnant prairie, a vanishing ecosystem that once blanketed the Great Plains states. Where now there are corn fields, wheat fields and houses with close trimmed lawns, once grew big bluestem, purple coneflower, compass plant and cylindric blazing star. With sprawling root systems four feet, nine feet, even fifteen feet deep, these prairie flowers and grasses can withstand the ravishes of nature, finding water in the midst of drought, retaining life during the most frigid winters, and even surviving fire.

American pioneers plowed the prairie under and then watched as the crops they planted gradually robbed the soil of its nutrients. When drought hit in the 1930’s, vast stretches of open land dried up and blew away in the wind. Soil and Water Conservation Districts were created in response to this catastrophe and began working with farmers to manage the land more wisely. Among the practices that SWCD’s continue to promote today is the use of cover crops to stabilize soil on fallow fields, as well as planting deep-rooted native plants in erosion prone areas such as streambanks and steep hillsides.

Dust bowl truck
A truck drives down a road with a cloud of dust in its wake. During the early 1900’s, settlers converted prairie to cropland. After several years of drought, many of these fields withered, creating a massive Dust Bowl during the Depression Era. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia – Public Domain, US Gov’t Photos.

Today, prairies are enjoying a renaissance as private landowners and public land managers rediscover the benefits of native plants. Easy to please, Minnesota natives demand no sprinklers, watering cans or hoses, unlike common lawn grasses. Native prairie plants are also surprisingly adept at managing wet weather. During winter months, approximately one third of their roots will slough off, leaving tiny channels in the soil that help to decompact soil and soak water into the ground. The roots of the native plants cling tenaciously to the earth, refusing to relinquish their grasp even when they are pummeled by waves or coursing floodwaters. For this reason, native prairie plants are especially well suited for hillsides, streambanks and lakeshores.

We have also come to realize the critical importance of prairies for birds and pollinators. The monarch butterfly, once common and now close to becoming an endangered species, can only lay eggs on milkweed plants. There are 350-400 species of native bees in Minnesota; though they depend on native plants, they also pollinate food crops we enjoy such as apples, blueberries, and cranberries. At least 278 bird species live in the prairie grassland regions of our state, yet 50% have declining populations due to habitat loss.

Monarch butterflies require milkweed to feed their caterpillars. Other insects have similar relationships with prairie plants. In addition, 278 species of birds live in Minnesota grasslands.

Beneath our feet, the roots of the leadplant have yet another secret in store. Tiny nodules along the length of their sinewy fingers produce nitrogen compounds that help the plant to grow. When the roots slough off, the fixed nitrogen is released, making it available to other plants and helping to fertilize the soil. Leadplant is a model in self-sufficiency.

Many people garden with native plants simply because they are beautiful. In shades of purple, gold, pink and yelow, some bloom with brillance in the late summer, while others offer small and delicate petals that quickly vanish in the spring. With this beauty comes life. Blazing star, milkweed and golden alexanders draw butterflies like magnets, while native shrubs like serviceberry, chokecherry and wild plum provide feasts for the birds. Pheasants, deer and grouse join the banquet, and soon a beautifully planted landscape is no longer a still life.

Despite its many virtues, less than 2% of Minnesota’s original prairie remains. Landowners across the state can help to keep this unique and important habitat from vanishing by putting down roots and growing prairie and native plants in their yards.

Head to www.BlueThumb.org for resources on gardening with native plants, including a plant selector tool, a map of native plant retailers, sample garden plans, and more.

Prairie Installation & Maintenance – Tuesday, Aug. 7, 6-8pm in Grant, MN

  • Tour a restored prairie on private land and learn how to install and maintain a prairie of your own. This event is hosted by Brown’s Creek Watershed District and Laurie Mainquist at the Holsten family home.
  • Please meet at 10431 Lansing Ave N and park along Lansing Ave.
  • In case of rain, the event will be held on Wednesday, August 8th

Looking for prairies to visit in Washington County?