The Effectiveness of Tallgrass Prairie Restoration
Efforts in Central Ohio
The Sandusky Plains is an area extending north from Marion in Central Ohio that was covered by tallgrass prairie and oak savannah during pre-settlement times. It consists of approximately 300 square miles within portions of Marion, Crawford and Wyandot Counties.
Until 1830, most settlers thought of prairie as barrens, “obviously” no good for farming since there weren’t any trees! Mosquito-borne malaria was common, drinking water scarce, and the Plains lacked timber for housing and fuel. But even from the start of white settlement the prairie started disappearing, as yearly Indian fires were prohibited and trees encroached. The steel moldboard plow, introduced in 1837, replaced wood plows and allowed farmers to cultivate the prairie. By the 1880′s, cooperative drainage projects further enhanced the value of the land for farming. Originally comprising roughly 300 square miles (192,000 acres), today there is less than 75 acres of prairie in this part of the State, and much of that is on small degraded and threatened parcels.
Four Types of Prairie Remnants
Because prairie soils are fertile, nearly all our prairies have been converted to agriculture. Consequently, remnants are found in only a few small places that somehow escaped the plow. These include railroad rights-of-way, pioneer cemeteries, formerly grazed areas, and restored prairies.
Railroad prairies occur alongside tracks. Claridon Prairie in Caledonia, Marion County is a great example of this type of prairie. Located northeast of Marion, it is a 50 foot wide, one mile long prairie immediately east of Route 98 between the little used County Road 114 and the tracks. It is a splendid tallgrass prairie with very high diversity, rich in “prairie signature” grasses big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass and prairie cordgrass, plus a State-listed rarity, Leiberg’s Panic grass.
It is also the site of many forbs associated with high-quality remnants, such as prairie dock, Sullivant’s milkweed, false white indigo, spiked blazing-star and Michigan lily. Clarion’s conservation status has to be considered VULNERABLE because it is under private ownership by CSX Railroad, which is presumably indifferent to its presence there. There is no formal agreement regarding management or preservation. The area benefits from intensive removal and spraying of weedy invaders by local resident Kensel Clutter, acting through the Marion Historical Society.
Pioneer Cemeteries, such as Breck’s Cemetery situtated north of Brushridge on State Route 231, having never been plowed, are tiny but significant remnants of native tallgrass prairie. This quarter-acre tract is an old cemetery with stones all toppled, dating to circa 1830’s. Breck’s contains about 10 prairie species, including big bluestem, Indian grass, whorled rosinweed, and an uncommon prairie shrub, New Jersey tea. Its Conservation Status is VULNERABLE due to private ownership. Farming activity alongside the cemetery and associated herbicide use could erode its edges or wipe it out altogether. Moreover, woody invaders are not being controlled.
Former Pasture Lands like Crawford County’s Daughmer Prairie savanna have been inadvertently preserved by a land use activity that, when practiced with low intensity, is not wholly destructive. Grazing animals can suppress woody vegetation, and prairie grasses can survive it. Savannas are open grassy areas with scattered trees. Our only true prairie tree is bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa). Daughmer, a splendid 35 acre savanna was a sheep pasture until about 10 years ago. Located 1.7 miles north of the Marion County line on the west side of Marion-Melmore Road. Privately owned until 2011, it is now a state nature preserve. The Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserve preserves manages the area by prescribed burning and hand removal of invasive species. While not especially rich in forbs (i.e., non-grasslike wildflowers), Daughmer is noted for its fine stands of prairie cordgrass and several unusual sedges. Its conservation ctatus is SECURE due to public ownership.
Restored prairies are bringing back some of the diversity of the Plains. The Larry R. Yoder Prairie at OSU-Marion is a good example. Beginning in 1977, OSU at Marion botanist Larry Yoder and his students gathered seeds from Claridon Prairie and planted them here to further education, conservation and research. Using only Sandusky Plains genotypes, the area is moderately rich in characteristic tallgrass species and has a thriving population of State-listed royal catchfly (Silene regia). Its conservation status is SECURE. The prairie is currently 11 acres, and the Ohio State-Marion/Marion Technical College Master Plan includes plans to expand the prairie and maintain it as a campus element. Also, plans are underway to establish a wetland adjacent to it in connection with the ecological rehabilitation of Grave Creek, which flows through the campus. As the heart of the Campus Prairie Nature Center, the prairie is lovingly managed by faculty, staff, and student workers.
The “main attraction” is, of course, the prairie plant community. It is dominated by the grasses big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), along with many forbs such as prairie-dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), round-headed bush-clover (Lespedeza capitata), and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).
Signature Prairie Grasses
The principal tallgrass prairie grass is indeed tall, growing well in excess of a person’s height. This is big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii.
Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans, is another especially tall warm season grass, flowering August through September.
Switch grass, Panicum virgatum, is an especially robust grass that tolerates dry, infertile soils. It is being investigated for use as a possible bio-fuel.
Signature Prairie Forbs
Several plant families are specially well represented in tallgrass prairies. The aster family is the most conspicuous. In this family, many minute flowers are aggregated together into a head that simulates an individual blossom.
Prairie dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum, is a huge, long-lived tap-tooted perennial that has a high fidelity to prairies and the prairie wetlands known as fens.
The legume family, Fabaceae, is abundant in prairies, possibly because they engage in a symbiosis with root nodule-forming bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen, enhancing their ability to grow in poor soil.
Many members of the mint family (Lamiaceae) bear colorful asymmetric flowers that are small, crowded into terminal clusters. This is wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).