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Intro to Exploring the Prairie


Click to see a large prairie picture!"Try to envision what Iowa must have been like more than 150 years ago. It's early morning, a low-hanging veil of fog drifts silently over the top of a sea of grasses. The early morning sunrise casts its warm glow on colorful, fragrant flowers as far as the eye and mind can envision. Bobolinks and meadowlarks greet the early morning glow with their wondrous songs. It's a new day in Iowa ..."
~ Gary Tonhouse

A prairie is a tract of land characterized predominantly by grasses. As a large area of level or rolling land, the prairie usually has deep fertile soil in its natural and uncultivated state, a cover of tall coarse grasses, and few trees.

The tallgrass prairie was located in heartland of the continental United States. Extending in the east to Indiana and to the Dakotas in the west, the prairie stretched from Canada to Texas. In the east where rainfall was more abundant, the prairie grasses grew up to ten feet tall. In the great plains of the west where rainfall was less abundant, the grasses grew much shorter.

Click to see the Butter Fly Milkweed!Prairies vary in the types of vegetation they support. These variations are largely due to soil types and the moisture content of the soil. When 19th century pioneer settlers arrived, prairie grasses covered approximately three-fourths of the state of Iowa with woodlands and forested areas thriving along rivers and streams.

The big bluestem dominated the Iowa prairie, particularly in the east where abundant rainfall provided rich moist soil. Western Iowa with its drier climate was dominated by little bluestem. In addition, many varieties of grasses and flowering plants were also part of the prairie's natural environment.

The prairie was home to numerous animal species including insects, birds, mammals and reptiles that adapted to the seasonal climatic changes. The delicate natural balance was maintained as plant and animal life adapted to seasonal changes in moisture and temperature.

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