The prairie is in an area formerly inhabited by the Potawatomi, who called the area the Burnt River District. They regularly burned the area to create open spaces for the animals they hunted to graze. After the federal government bought the land, it was strip-mined for gravel. After that project was abandoned, vegetation returned, but many non-native and aggressive trees and shrubs filled in the space, outcompeting the grasses and prairie flowers. Later, sparks from the railway started little fires that killed the trees, and prairie plants again started to take a foothold.
Everything growing the the prairie today was in the prairie hundreds of years ago. Nothing has been reintroduced. Many prairie plants also make great garden plants.You can integrate native plants into your existing garden or create a new bed just for them.
Big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) is sometimes called turkey foot. It reaches about 8 feet, prefers full sun, and does well in most soil conditions, except sand. It gets red in fall and is named for its green-blue color in spring. The seed head gets tiny yellow flowers which are quite striking in the fall landscape.
The prairie has several glacial erratics of varying sizes, which were washed in with the melting glaciers. Michigan is, by the way, the only state that was 100% covered in glaciers. It also means our soils are very random, from sand to clay to gravel in very short distances, sometimes in one yard.
Little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) gets about 3 feet tall and is ideal for the home garden. It gets gorgeous reddish fall color, but is named for its green-blue color in spring. It prefers full sun, and can deal with most soils. It's not wild about clay, but it does OK in my very clay-y soil.
Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) looked so gorgeous covered in dew and swaying slightly in the breeze. It can reach 8 feet, but I've generally seen it top out at 6. Later in fall, its foliage turns dark orange/purpley. It is great for the home garden because it grows well in full sun to shade, and it can handle dry ot moist soil conditions.
Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) is eaten by dear in the prairie and only the leaves remain. It normally gets 2 to 3-inch yellow flowers on very tall (up to 8 feet) stalks. It needs full sun and can handle moist to dry soil conditions. Give it a bit of space, as the leaves are huge.
Rough blazingstar (Liatris aspera). This grows well in the home garden, prefers full sun, and can handle most soil conditions except sand. It attracts birds and butterflies, and has the coolest looking pink-hued buds (the non-open flowers here are wilted flowers, not buds.)
There's just something about these gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seed heads! The plant gets about 4 feet tall, has yellow flowers with brown centers, prefers full sun, and likes most soil conditions, except sand.
My absolute favorite things in the entire prairie were these gorgeous spent flowers of round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata). It gets about 4 feet tall and prefers full sun, and mesic (average moisture) to dry soil conditions. The bloom is white.
Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) is just starting to bloom. It's a wetland indicator species (meaning if you see one in the wild, it means you're in a wetland ecosystem) that gets about 2 feet tall and can also tolerate drier soils. It is resistant to deer browsing. Native Americans used heath asters to bind the structure of sweat lodges and on hot rocks to create herbal steam. This plant is threatened in Tennessee.
I can tell you're getting tired, so we'll break up our jaunt. Next time I'll show more prairie flowers, including a ladies' tresses orchid, as well as Virginia snakeroot, a threatened species growing in the nearby woodland.