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Prairie: An Iconic American Landscape


The Woodneath Library Center features a planting that includes grasses and wildflowers native to the prairie ecosystem that once covered up to 170 million acres across North America.  Much of the greater Kansas City region was dominated by prairie landscapes with tall prairie grasses and diverse wildflowers. These plants supported abundant grassland birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, as well as thousands of different kinds of insects and other invertebrates.

Today, less than 1/2 of 1%, of native prairies remain in Missouri. Once covering at least 15 million acres in Missouri—one-third of the state—up until statehood in 1821, today, according to the Missouri Natural Heritage Database, fewer than 50,000 scattered acres of original, unplowed prairie remain. Approximately 26,600 of these remaining acres are protected by state agencies, the Missouri Prairie Foundation, and other groups. Many factors have contributed to the demise of prairie, including land conversion for agricultural purposes and other human development, fire suppression, overgrazing, and invasive species. While rare, original prairie provides vital habitat for many prairie-dependent plants and animals that can live nowhere else.

“Presettlement prairie” is a term referring to prairie on the North American landscape prior to European settlement. The map on the left, created by Dr. Walter Schroeder, depicts the 15 million acres of presettlement prairie in Missouri until statehood in 1821. The map on the right, courtesy of the Missouri Natural Heritage Database, illustrates the 1/2 of 1% of original, unplowed prairie remaining in the state.

What is Prairie?

Prairie is an ecosystem dominated by grasses and non-woody broad-leaved plants, also called forbs, with less than 10 percent tree cover. Twelve specific prairie natural communities are found in Missouri, determined by geology, soils, moisture, hydrology, and topography, with each type expressing a different assemblage of plants and animals. As with all ecosystems, many elements of a prairie—plants, animals, fungi, soil—are interdependent.

Tallgrass prairie occurs from the Flint Hills region of Kansas eastward through Missouri and all the way to Ohio. There are many grassland types in the eastern and southeastern United States as well, including prairies, glades, fens, stream scours, and coastal grasslands. Westward from the Flint Hills of Kansas (west of Wichita, KS), mixed-grass and short grass prairie are the dominant prairie types. All prairie types developed with natural disturbances including fire and grazing, and most are drought tolerant.

As prairie plants grow, most of the initial growth is below ground in deep root systems. Two-thirds of the living portion of the prairie is below ground in the roots. As fire burns across the land, it burns the dead material from the top of the plants, returning its nutrients to the earth. Fire eliminates most tree species from taking over a prairie. Prairie plants, which tolerate fire, then re-sprout from their deep roots. Over thousands of years, the continuous cycle of life and death on the prairie built the rich, deep soils of the Midwest. These root systems store significant amounts of atmospheric carbon, which is critically important in mitigating the harmful effects of climate change. These root systems also slow and trap stormwater, filtering pollutants in rainwater runoff and helping to protect streams. In addition, prairie soils harbor the most diverse soil microbial communities on earth, including mycorrhizal fungi, largely due to these root systems.

lindens prairie.jpg
The Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Linden’s Prairie in Lawrence County, a 171-acre, original, unplowed, and very diverse prairie. Photo by R.S. Kinerson.

How Did Prairie Get in the Midwest?

Modern prairie is 8,000 years old, but is millions of years in the making. As the glacial ice sheets retreated from the Midwest 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, the climate gradually changed. As the forests retreated with the colder glacial climate, prairie became established in the warmer, drier climate. Forests have made advances into the prairie at different times in the past 8,000 years as the climate has changed. Fires kept most of the forest at bay. Certain trees could survive some of the fires and grew wide-spaced on prairies, creating savannas. Rocky, open slopes within woodlands that contain native prairie species are called glades. Savannas and glades are other types of native grasslands. Historically Midwestern prairie fires were routinely set by Native American cultures for a wide variety of reasons and ignited occasionally by lightning strikes.

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The Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Noah Brown’s Prairie in Newton County, Missouri, an unplowed, “old growth” prairie. Photo by Bruce Schuette.

Why Does Prairie Matter?

  • As Doug Ladd, former Director of Conservation Science for The Nature Conservancy, suggests, prairies are home to a stunning diversity of plant, animal, and insect life. At least 800 native plant species alone can occur on Missouri’s prairies.
  • Prairie is an original American landscape, and, along with other temperate grasslands of the world, is one of the planet’s most imperiled major ecosystems—prairies are irreplaceable genetic reservoirs that must be conserved for future generations.
  • Prairie plant roots, some growing as deep as 15 feet, store carbon and build rich soil.  Studies at Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota suggested that one acre of established prairie can produce 24,000 pounds of roots and can store at least 1 ton of carbon annually.  
  • Prairies provide habitat for hundreds of native species of pollinating insects, many of which are essential for food crop pollination.
  • Prairie soils can absorb a large volume of rainfall before runoff occurs, thereby naturally filtering water, protecting streams from flood events, and helping to recharge groundwater supplies.
  • Many plants that are hardy, water-efficient, and beautiful for home and corporate landscaping originate from Missouri’s prairies.
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Visitors enjoying the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Snowball Hill Prairie, one of the last original, unplowed prairies in the greater Kansas City area, just outside the town of Harrisonville. Photograph by Jerod Heubner.

Notes & Resources

  • The Early Prairies of St. Louis. 1981. Missouri Prairie Journal 3(April): 8–13. 
  • Grow Native!
  • Ladd, D. 2018. Ancient Players, New Game: The Origins of Our Tallgrass Prairies. Missouri Prairie Journal 39(3 & 4): 8–13.
  • Missouri Invasive Plant Council
  • Missouri Prairie Foundation
  • Missouri Prairie Journal
  • Public Prairies of Missouri Interactive Story Map
  • San Juan, A. 2022. The New Paradigm of Old-Growth Grasslands. Missouri Prairie Journal 43(1):16–19.
  • Schroeder, W. 1983. Presettlement Prairies of Missouri. Natural History Series, No. 2. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, Missouri.
  • Schroeder, W. 1985. The Presettlement Prairie in the Kansas City Region (Jackson County, MO). Missouri Prairie Journal 7:3–12.
  • Schroeder, W. 2011. Creating a Prairie Map of Missouri. Missouri Prairie Journal 32(3 & 4):12–16.


This essay was provided by the Missouri Prairie Foundation, Carol Davit, Executive Director.

Learn more about the Missouri Prairie Foundation

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