Historically, tallgrass and mixed grass prairie occupied approximately 150 million acres of the Midwest and Northern Great Plains and was considered one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Tall grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass made up 80-90% of the plant species and gave the ecosystem its name, but there were also native shrubs, trees and thousands of flowers present, such as prairie violet, pale purple coneflower, false sunflower, milkweed species, goldenrod species and many more.
Today, less than 4% of the original prairie remains due to development and fragmentation, making it one of the rarest and most endangered ecosystems. This loss of prairie habitat has caused a steep decline in pollinators, birds and wildlife in the last few decades. However, we can all help combat these losses by adding native plants to our own yards and gardens creating ‘pockets of prairie.’
• Native plants require less time, energy and resources to maintain and do not require fertilizing and watering once established because they are adapted to our local ecosystem.
• Native plants have deep root systems that soak up rainfall and stormwater, stabilize the soil and prevent erosion.
• Perennial prairie plants help sequester carbon in the soil.
• Native plants provide food and shelter to specialist insects and pollinators who rely on specific prairie species.
• Native plants provide habitat and food for many of our beautiful grassland bird species.
When buying native plants for landscaping, it is important to choose true native varieties and not cultivars. Cultivars of native plants, like many Echinacea varieties, are bred for traits like leaf or flower color that may not be recognizable or beneficial to birds and pollinators. To provide the most benefit, Douglas Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope, recommends converting 70% of your yard to native plants, shrubs and trees. There are many native plant species adapted to our area that grow well in sun, shade or rain gardens that are beautiful and beneficial.
Using native plants in our gardens and landscaping provides an opportunity to restore some of the amazing and diverse ecosystem of the prairie and connects us to our natural heritage. For more information about native plants, check out the Native Plant Initiative at South Dakota State University. https://www.sdstate.edu/npi
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