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OPA FAQ Page 1

1. Are Prairies In Ohio? Yes, beautiful ones, special ones, not just old fields with common weeds or brush. Ohio has real prairies where real prairie plants such as big bluestem grass, prairie coneflower, and other prairie species are found.

2. What’s a Real Prairie? First, it’s important to know what is not a prairie. A prairie is not an old patch of ground that has been left to grow. Ohio has thousands of acres of these “old field” habitats, places with common plants such as Queen Anne’s Lace, common milkweed, Kentucky bluegrass, and other often-weedy plants. But these unkempt areas are not prairies.

A real prairie is composed of special, uncommon plants that are seldom found in other habitats. A prairie is defined by its special plants.

3. What Plants Define an Ohio Prairie? There are so many prairie plants that this could be a lengthy answer. For a rather complete list, see List of Ohio Prairie Plants [A separate web page with a table listing Ohio prairie plants]. But some of the more common species are described below.

Almost all prairies are dominated by special grasses. The most common prairie grass is big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii. Big bluestem is found on most Ohio prairies. Indiangrass, Sorghastrum nutans, is another frequent prairie grass. Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum, is the third common Ohio prairie grass. There are several other Ohio prairie grass species.

In addition to special grasses, prairies have unique wildflowers (properly called forbs). Prominent prairie forbs include prairie coneflower, Ratibida pinnata; dense blazingstar, Liatris spicata; sawtooth sunflower, Helianthus grosseserratus; prairie dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum; Ohio spiderwort, Tradescantia ohiensis; and many others.

4. Why Are Prairies in Ohio? This is an important, and somewhat difficult question. Ohio is rather moist and well-watered by frequent rains throughout the year. If nature were left to itself, with no human intervention over the centuries, Ohio would have been covered completely with forests and wetlands. Prairies, which can’t grow in the shade of trees or in the continuously soggy soil of wetlands, wouldn’t have been found in the Buckeye State without two historic factors: 1) an ancient period of dry climate that favored the growth of drought-tolerant prairie species, and 2) the frequent setting of landscape fires by Native Americans before European settlement.

In short, Ohio has prairies because of a long, dry climate period that occurred from about 4-8 thousand years ago, and because Native Americans burned the remnants of these prairies for thousands of years after that dry period.

5. What Was This Long, Dry Period in Ohio? About 4-8 thousand years ago, the climate in both Europe and North America became rather warm and dry. Much of Ohio had a dry climate similar to today’s Iowa and Nebraska. In this centuries-long drought, forests were stressed, and drought-tolerant prairie plants invaded from the West and began to grow here. This important dry period is known as the Xerothermic Interval. (Xerothermic is pronounced "zerr-oh-THERMIC.")

6. Why Did Native Americans Burn Much of the Landscape? Numerous historical records from across all of North America show that Native Americans burned forests and grasslands frequently. These common annual fires were not destructive in the modern sense, but were set to control the growth of brush and thick vegetation that hindered travel and made hunting difficult. Frequent natural landscape fires reduced fuel accumulation and prevented the spread of large destructive fires. The forests and prairies of Ohio were commonly burned by Native Americans, and these fires promoted the growth of prairies.

7. Why Did Native Americans Burn the Prairies? Native Americans have burned all of North America’s grasslands since humans entered the continent from Asia at the end of the Ice Age. Grassland burning has been a human trait throughout history in all grassed areas of the world. The burning of North American grasslands was merely a continuation of an ancient, perhaps definitive, human trait. Humans burn grasslands wherever they can, for a number of successful purposes.

In Ohio, Native Ohioans burned prairies for the following reasons. The most important was to suppress the growth of shrubs, brush, and young trees, all of which if left unburned would soon overgrow and shade out the sun-loving prairie. Native Americans knew that a prairie grassland left unburned for five or ten years became choked with thick woody vegetation and was difficult to walk through. After another ten or twenty years without fire, the prairie would be covered by young trees and the prairie would be lost to forest. Annual fires kept the prairies open and free from brush and trees.

Open prairies were very important to Native Americans because they were the habitat of essential animals that supplied food and clothing. The most important of these was the whitetailed deer. In summer and fall, deer were attracted to the abundant and nutritious forage of a frequently burned prairie. Modern studies have shown that a burned prairie produces about twice as much forage protein as an unburned one. Frequent prairie fires encouraged the migration of deer out of the forest on to the prairies in summer and fall where the nutritious grass promoted the growth of strong and healthy offspring.

Deer were a major, even essential source of food and clothing (leather). On Ohio’s prairies, deer were commonly harvested by the setting of autumn “ring fires.”

Coordinated teams of Native Americans would set large rings or fronts of fire in the prairie that would drive game animals in a particular direction. The encircling tall (10 - 20') flames would conveniently herd the animals toward a single, confined location where hunters could then easily slay the deer with flint-tipped weapons. In a single prairie fire a large number of deer could be harvested, providing both meat and clothing for a coming winter.

The hunting fires also removed the dead stems and leaves on the prairie, exposing the ground to sunlight the next spring so that unshaded new growth could begin vigorously. The annual burning of the prairies restored the high nutrition of the grasses for the next growing season, which again attracted deer out onto the prairie for another winter’s food and clothing. This self-restoring annual prairie fire hunting cycle worked for thousands of years on Ohio’s prairies.

The third reason prairie fires were set (the first reasons were to clear brush and to herd deer for easy hunting) was because prairie fires are plainly exciting. The prospect of igniting several square miles of 6-8' tall dry grass has excited men for thousands of years. Those few who have seen even a small modern prairie fire on any of Ohio’s modern tallgrass prairies know how thrilling (and yes, dangerous) a prairie fire can be.

8. Doesn’t Frequent Fire Destroy the Prairie Plants? We all learned from Smokey Bear that “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires!” And yes, forest fires can be destructive. Hot forest fires can destroy trees and those kinds of fires should be prevented.

But prairie plants simply can’t be destroyed by fires of any kind. It’s the other way around. Prairie fires actually cause prairie plants to grow and thrive, not languish and die. Virtually all prairie plants are adapted to, even require fire. So no, prairie fires don’t destroy prairie plants. Fires actually encourage the reproduction and growth of prairie plants. Prairie fires are not destructive. They are restorative, a crucial and essential part of the prairie’s unique ecology.

9. How Can Prairie Plants Survive Frequent Fires? Any plant that once lived on a prairie that couldn’t thrive after thousands of years of fires has, by now, gone extinct, or retreated and survived in unburned habitats. All of the over 300 Ohio prairie plant species survive and thrive after being burned. How? By a few simple mechanisms.

First, most prairie species grow from just below the ground, not from stems above ground. The grasses are particularly good at this. So when a fire occurs, unburned growth tissues are always protected by the cool earth. After a fire, the prairie grasses shoot up new growth from the root crown slightly below the surface. A prairie fire is very hot, but it can’t last long in any one place because fuel is quickly burned away. Therefore, the soil around a prairie plant’s roots never gets very hot. Prairie plant roots are always cool and protected, ready to restart new growth after a fire.

Prairie plants store energy in their roots that is used for new growth after a fire. And this new growth is easy because the fire cleared the dead stems and leaves, allowing exposure to full sun for good growth. The black ash of the prairie fire has a slight fertilizing effect that also promotes strong new growth.

10. What Happens to a Prairie Plant That Gets Grazed by Large Animals? This is another apparent threat to prairie plants. Ohio’s prairies had large herds of deer, moderate herds of large elk, along with small herds of real bison (although Ohio never had giant herds of buffalo like those on the Great Plains). All of these animals ate prairie plants during the growing season.

But grazing is similar to fire. It removes the top part of the plant, leaving the roots and base of the plant intact. To survive, the plant re-grows new stems and leaves after being eaten. Like fire, prairie plants can survive grazing.

11. Is There Anything Prairie Plants Can’t Survive? Yes – shading and plowing. If a prairie gets shaded by encroaching shrubs or trees, its days are numbered. Prairies require full sun. Trees and shrubs will cause the loss of a prairie. But for thousands of years Native Americans burned Ohio prairies and these fires killed invading shrubs and trees, preserving the prairies.

In the end, the greatest threat to Ohio’s prairies was the steel plow. Prairies proved to have some of the most fertile soil in the world, and the steel plow allowed settlers in the 19th century to convert Ohio’s great prairies to productive farmland. By 1900 only scattered plots of unturned, native prairie still survived. By the 1970s, only a few minor plots along some railroads and inside a few pioneer cemeteries remained unplowed. Most of Ohio’s prairies had been converted to fertile farmland and few Ohioans even knew that prairies once were prominent landscape features in the Buckeye State. Most Ohioans were taught that Ohio was originally covered by forest, that a squirrel could climb a tree at the Pennsylvania border and work its way over the forest tops all the way to Indiana. Modern development, both in the creation of farms and cities had destroyed most of Ohio’s great prairies.

12. Ohio Still Has Prairie Plants. How Did These Survive into the Modern World? In many cases, they did just barely. The plow destroyed the great landscape prairies, but prairie plants are survivors in the face of adversity. A species that can survive annual fires, frequent grazing, even the sharp-cutting hooves of large animals, has a lot going for it. Consequently, the plow turned under the great masses of prairie, but prairie seeds drifted into ditchbanks, grew along un-mowed rural highways, and survived in obscure, isolated rural patches in former prairie areas. Until the 1960s and 70s, many rural landowners continued to burn woodlots and old fields each spring, and these fires helped preserve small, isolated populations of local prairie plants. The great, intact prairie plant communities did not survive. But their scattered and fragmented species did. A few native prairie species probably did become extinct in Ohio. But today, from the efforts of modern prairie scientists and motivated amateurs, Ohio’s rare prairie plants have been rediscovered and are being grown and preserved for future generations. This is a major goal of the Ohio Prairie Association, to find and grow Ohio’s prairie remnants.

Details on how Ohio prairies persisted.

Go OPA FAQs Page 2