See grasses in all their glory at a suburban tallgrass prairie

See grasses in all their glory at a suburban tallgrass prairie

  • Big bluestem and Indian grass reach to the sky in the prairie at Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve in Hampshire. These two species were dominant species in the tallgrass prairie that once stretched across Illinois.

    Big bluestem and Indian grass reach to the sky in the prairie at Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve in Hampshire. These two species were dominant species in the tallgrass prairie that once stretched across Illinois. COURTESY OF VALERIE BLAINE

 
Posted9/16/2019 6:00 AM

If your last good look at nature was your screen saver, it's time to get outside. Power off the computer, push your chair back, rub your screen-weary eyes and get going. Preferably to a prairie.

Why a prairie? A tall-grass prairie in September is one of the best antidotes for screen fatigue that I know. Here, the grasses are in their glory, towering above all else and waving their flowers with abandon. When the wind stirs the grassland, land becomes sea, with waves of grasses rolling to the horizon. It's a sight for sore eyes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Big bluestem is one of the most glorious of the grasses. Big blue puts the tall in tall-grass prairie. Thanks to the abundant rain of May and June this year, it has shot to heights exceeding 12 feet in some places. Its moniker comes from the plant's purplish cast in late summer and fall. It's not exactly blue, but big purplestem doesn't have the right ring to it, so we're stuck with the name big bluestem.

Another nickname for this grass is turkey-foot. The flowers atop the long, graceful stem are arranged in a pattern that does, indeed, resemble the foot of a turkey. Or a chicken, if the name big chicken-foot suits you.

This big bluestem at Corron Farm in Campton Township sports shades of purple, rather than blue. The anthers on the flowers change from bright yellow to purple over the season.
This big bluestem at Corron Farm in Campton Township sports shades of purple, rather than blue. The anthers on the flowers change from bright yellow to purple over the season. - COURTESY OF VALERIE BLAINE

Big bluestem is a dominant grass in the ocean of prairie. It excels in moist, rich soils, but it can also grow in lower quality ground. Hence, it's widely used in habitat restoration and erosion control. Cattle find big bluestem tasty, as bison did before them, so it's often planted as forage.

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Indian grass is a common associate of big bluestem. In ecological terms, Indian grass is a co-dominant plant of the tall-grass prairie. It's adapted to many of the same soil conditions as big blue, and the two of them thrive en masse in moist, rich prairie soils. Indian grass is not as tall as big bluestem, reaching about five feet by September.

According to the USDA Plant Guide, "The Lakota name for Indiangrass means 'red grass with fluffy light-colored end.'" An apt description of this tall, russet colored grass with a plume of flowers on top.

Like big bluestem, Indian grass makes good forage. In the absence of grazers (notably, bison), these two tall grasses can take over a restored prairie. They can be aggressive, overwhelming the non-grasses known as forbs.

Reintroducing bison to the prairie is a work-in-progress at Nachusa Grasslands in Lee County, where ecologists are studying the role of these important herbivores in keeping the grasses in check.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A similar study in the Forest Preserve District of Kane County employs cattle to measure the effects of grazers on prairie biodiversity.

The seeds of little bluestem catch glints of sunshine in the autumn prairie.
The seeds of little bluestem catch glints of sunshine in the autumn prairie. - COURTESY OF VALERIE BLAINE

Little bluestem, not to be outdone by its taller counterparts, is a glorious native grass. It's a dominant species in drier sites with gravelly soil. Its value as forage is less than that of big bluestem or Indian grass, but little blue provides excellent habitat for grassland birds and other small wildlife.

The auburn stems of little bluestem meld in the colorful palette of the autumn prairie. They're beautiful, but again, not blue. The Lakota cinch it with their name for the plant, peji sasa swula, which means "small red grass."

Contrast this with the scientific name for this grass -- Schizachyrium scoparium, which translates, roughly, to "split chaff." I'll go with small red grass.

The stems are only part of the appeal of little bluestem. It's the seeds that catch your eye. At the end of the red stems are feathery, silver seeds. A field of these on a sunny day is mesmerizing; tiny glints of sunlight catch your eye from every angle.

Indian grass adds both texture and color to the prairie at Hoscheit Woods Forest Preserve in St. Charles. Key identifiers are plumes of flowers borne on tall, russet-colored stems.
Indian grass adds both texture and color to the prairie at Hoscheit Woods Forest Preserve in St. Charles. Key identifiers are plumes of flowers borne on tall, russet-colored stems. - COURTESY OF VALERIE BLAINE

There are more than 50 other species of grass in the prairie that once swept like an ocean over the middle of our continent.

Big bluestem, Indian grass, and little bluestem are just a few that you can feast your eyes on in northern Illinois. An expanse of big bluestem bending in the wind will inspire awe. A prairie hillside of little bluestem, silver seeds sparkling the sun, is nothing short of breathtaking.

A stretch of Indian grass punctuated by the cry of a red-tailed hawk puts things right with the world.

Walk on a path through a windswept prairie and see for yourself. Cherish the scene in your mind's eye, and you'll have the best screen saver ever.

• Valerie Blaine is a lifelong naturalist, recently retired from the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at natvblaine@gmail.com.

Where to find tallgrass prairie in Illinois

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove: One of the premier prairies in northern Illinois is Nachusa Grasslands, straddling both Ogle and Lee counties. With 3,800 acres, this magnificent preserve comprises remnant tallgrass prairie, wetlands, and woodlands. Here you can get a sense of the former vastness of the prairie -- and, if you're lucky, you'll spot the herd of bison that roam the prairie hills of Nachusa. www.nachusagrasslands.org

Midewin National Grasslands, Wilmington: An ambitious project to restore 20,000 acres of land to its original prairie grandeur began in Will County in 1996. Midewin is now "the largest open space in the Chicago metropolitan area and northeastern Illinois, and the largest tallgrass prairie restoration effort east of the Mississippi River," according to The Nature Conservancy. There are 33 miles of trails for visitors, allowing a view of grasslands with unbroken horizons, grazing bison, myriad birds, insects and other wildlife. www.fs.usda.gov/midewin

Moraine Hills State Park, McHenry: Winding trails take you through a mosaic of prairie, woodlands, and wetlands that typify the natural history of northern Illinois. This 2,200-acre state park in McHenry County is home to many species of native grasses, wildflowers, and trees. www.dnr.illinois.gov/Parks/Pages/MoraineHills.aspx

Rollins Savanna, Grayslake: An excellent example of Illinois' black soil prairie is Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. The Lake County Forest Preserve District manages this top-notch natural area, where restoration efforts have resulted in a "Birder's Field of Dreams." Grassland birds and many other wildlife abound in this 1,221-acre preserve. www.lcfpd.org/rollins-savanna

Muirhead Springs, Hampshire: The gently rolling landscape of Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve is blanketed in tall grasses and wildflowers. From the high point in the preserve, you can see the autumn grasses swaying in the wind like waves on the ocean. The 850-acre preserve is a fine example of prairie restoration in Kane County. www.kaneforest.com/ForestPreserveView.aspx?ID=57

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago: DuPage County is home to this outstanding, 358-acre prairie preserve. Decades of habitat restoration work has resulted in a rich diversity of native plants and animals. The trail system in West Chicago Prairie links with the Illinois Prairie Path. www.dupageforest.org/places-to-go/forest-preserves/west-chicago-prairie

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