Rogersville Prairie grass seed head

Tallgrass Prairie: Remnants of an Earlier Age

Part of a series on CILTI’s conservation targets by guest blogger Ed Pope

Most Hoosiers think of the Great Plains when they hear the word prairie.  Actually, about 13% of Indiana was prairie prior to the arrival of Europeans, mostly in the northwest part of the state.

Prairies are dominated by grasses. Trees do not predominate because of insufficient rain, frequent fire, grazing animals or periodic flooding. Fires could be naturally occurring from lightning strikes or set intentionally by Native Americans to improve hunting. Grass, which has much of its biomass below ground, is much hardier. Some prairie grasses’ roots can grow up to 20 feet deep. When Europeans first moved into the prairies of the Great Plains, there was little wood available to build homes. Some used sod, which was held together by these deep roots, to build their houses.

Prairies are technically defined as grasslands that are less than 5 to 10% covered by trees. There are three types of prairies: tallgrass, shortgrass and mixed. Those with good soil and sufficient rainfall are tallgrass prairies. Tallgrass prairies made excellent farmland, but they couldn’t be tilled easily with the cast iron or wooden plows of early settlers. John Deere, an Illinois blacksmith, solved this problem when he developed the first steel plow in 1837. In Indiana, the few remnants of tallgrass prairie that escaped the plow are mostly around cemeteries and railroads.

Tallgrass prairies can harbor an amazing diversity of plants. There is a small preserve in Lake County called the German Methodist Cemetery Preserve, protected by The Nature Conservancy. It is only 2.7 acres in size but it includes one acre that has never been plowed. This tiny preserve has over 200 different species of native plants. It sometimes called “Indiana’s most diverse acre.”

Tallgrass prairie remnants are part of three core conservation areas of Central Indiana:

  • Indian Prairie (Tipton and Clinton counties): This parcel lies along a railroad.
  • Rogersville Prairie (Henry County): A portion of this area, Rogersville Cemetery, has been managed by CILTI since 1991. It was our very first project. Here’s a link to a scientific paper about the plants there.
  • Smith Prairie (Vermillion County): The one-acre Smith Cemetery Nature Preserve (which rivals any other remnant prairie site in Indiana) was state dedicated in 1997 and is stewarded by the DNR Division of Nature Preserves.

Only Smith Prairie is currently protected. CILTI’s goal is to protect these prairie remnants and restore adjacent lands to tallgrass prairie.

Ed Pope

Guest Blogger

Ed Pope is a retired engineer from Rolls-Royce and a CILTI member since 2002.