Fields of grasses and flowers stretching into the distance pull me into some sort of enchantment. In late autumn and winter their colors and textures could keep me wandering for hours, with the sun glinting through the tufted seeds of little bluestem and the inflorescences of Indiangrass waving at the tops of tall and slender stalks.
On October 30th, I had the opportunity to learn more about prairies and how they work, by attending the Prairie Seekers training provided by the Native Prairies Association of Texas (NPAT), in conjunction with the Dixon Water Foundation. The group of us met at the Dixon Water Foundation’s Leo Ranch, located northeast of Decatur in a portion of the Grand Prairie (the ecoregion, not the city). It is an area where grasses and forbs (flowering plants that are not grasses and not woody) grow in fairly shallow soil with limestone below it. Because of the limestone near the surface, the trees around creek corridors often include escarpment live oak.
Many thanks to Dr. Carly Aulicky, North Texas Outreach and Stewardship Director of NPAT, for her role in organizing the event and helping teach us. Others who taught us on walks through the prairie included Suzanne Tuttle, Kate Morgan, Michelle Villafranca, Mary Curry and others. Each of them is a priceless source of prairie wisdom. We were lucky to be able to spend the day with them.
A prairie is a constantly shifting community of plants and animals, changing or renewing in response to things like rainfall, the grazing of animals like bison, and occasional fires. Shrubs and trees are constantly looking for an opportunity to get started, and without grazing and/or periodic fire, woody plants will gradually take over and the prairie will disappear.
A healthy prairie has many different species of grasses and forbs living together. There is diversity in any square yard of prairie, but prairies may also have patches where different plants predominate. This may be the result of dips in the land or swales that are wetter because they collect more rainfall, areas of shallower or deeper soil, and so on. That mosaic of different plants makes the prairie stronger and more resilient.
We started the walk with examples of big bluestem and Indiangrass, two grasses characteristic of north Texas and among the tallest. Soon we came across a low-growing plant with mats of yellow flowers, identified as Whitlow-wort. Our prairie experts considered it a great plant, associated with healthy prairies.
There were many other grasses pointed out: little bluestem (a favorite of mine), and side-oats grama, the state grass of Texas, with seeds hanging off one side of the stem like little flags. There were low-growing clumps of heath aster with beautiful white flowers. And there was the invasive KR (King Ranch) bluestem and a bit of Johnson grass in a few places. Exotic grasses such as these have been imported to Texas from time to time and promoted as being good forage for cattle. It generally does not end well, with the imported grass tending to crowd out the native species.
Many other topics were covered, such as how a disturbed area or bare soil is colonized by species that can grow quickly and prepare the way for later plants, which eventually give way to later ones, in what is known as succession. We visited other places, including a small grotto where an intermittent stream has created a cool, wet place where maidenhair ferns grow beneath a limestone shelf. There was a lot to see and learn.
And all of that brought me more deeply under the spell of prairie magic, which does include natural history facts but beyond that it involves being drawn to the beauty and complexity of prairies. The experience of being in a prairie seems to nurture some part of me that needs to walk through a sea of flowers and waving grasses. All those Prairie Seekers at the NPAT/Dixon Water Foundation event are like the extended family members who will help keep that magic alive.