Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Deep Roots

In 1984, I moved from the forested landscape of New England to the relatively treeless region of central Iowa. It took me some time--including two years of my Master's research studying small mammals in native prairie--to appreciate the beauty of this low, rolling terrain dominated by corn and soybeans and remnant patches of prairie. When I left the midwest and returned to the northeast nearly ten years later, it was with a deep appreciation of the subtlety and complexity of the tallgrass prairie and with sadness of how much prairie was plowed under and paved over.

My fondness for the prairie developed through my own work and from the wisdom of a prairie ecologist who I worked with in Minnesota. Kathy Bolin managed and restored prairie for the Minnesota State Parks. She managed crews removing invasive plants, setting prescribed fires, and protecting more patches of prairie before they were converted to houses. My favorite lesson from Kathy was one she took into elementary schools. She asked students which plant had deeper roots: the white pine twig in her left hand or the blade of big bluestem in her right hand. The students said, of course, the white pine (the tallest tree in the east). The big bluestem grows to nearly nine feet; tall for a prairie plant, but diminutive compared to a majestic white pine.

White pine can grow to heights of 150 feet or more
Big bluestem reaches only nine feet tall
Maybe you've heard about deep prairie soils as well as about the rocky, shallow soils in which white pine often grows. That information alone gives up the answer to Kathy's question. A white pine, despite its girth and height, has a shallow, wide root system--a feature that causes many pines to be uprooted in major storms. Big bluestem extends its roots down twelve feet; this native grass is taller underground than aboveground. It is these grasses and other plants in a prairie community that has created the deep prairie soils on which we now grow mostly corn, soybeans, and houses.

On a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan last week, I walked through a remnant prairie along the Huron River; the prairie was being restored by the City using prescribed fire and invasive plant control. Yes, the City of Ann Arbor has conserved thousands of acres of open space and engages staff and volunteers to restore and maintain native prairie. It was refreshing to see a community committed to caring for natural areas and a reminder of the beauty of native prairie as I walked among big bluestem towering over my head.


  1. Very interesting, Ellen! My brother lives in Ann Arbor (and I'm going to visit him this weekend), and I think I've walked through the same prairie conservation area you mention last time I was there. I've only been out to visit twice so far, but the contrast between the mega-farms outside the town as you travel across the state versus that bit of wild prairie is shocking. I bet it must have been something amazing to see before it was all settled.

  2. Hi Ryan,

    Yes, wouldn't it have been fabulous to see the extent of native prairie before settlement. Fortunately there are still pockets of prairie--large and small--across the midwest. Ann Arbor has a great built environment too--I was impressed by the vitality of the city and the many great restaurants. Enjoy your visit.