Magazine article Natural History

A Lone Prairie

Magazine article Natural History

A Lone Prairie

Article excerpt

The term prairie readily conjoures up an image of the vast seas of tall, short, or mixed grasses that historically occupied the heartland of the United States. But tongues of grassland also penetrated parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Botanist Edward N. Transeau coined the term prairie peninsula for such tongues, small patches of which persist even within the eastern decidous forest (see "Buffalo Beats, Ohio," Natural History, December 1991). Having lived all my life in southern Illinois, I have long been familiar with such prairie remnants, but I learned only two years ago that a tall-grass prairie may have existed in parts of Tennessee. A remnant, called May Prairie (after a member of the family that formerly owned the land), lies in the outskirts of Manchester, some sixty miles southeast of Nashville.

Surveyors who made their way through Tennessee and Kentucky in the early 1800s recorded finding a number of "barrens," or treeless areas. One by one these habitats have been erased, mostly through agricultural practices and urbanization. In addition, because times were suppressed, some small patches of prairie undoubtedly turned into forest. May Prairie survived undisturbed, however. Visiting it on July 4, 1947, botanist Aaron J. Sharp and his colleagues from the University of Tennessee recorded that the prairie covered about forty acres. In addition to tall-grass prairie species, they identified many plants rare for the region but commonly found on the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains or elsewhere in the southeast.

In 1975 the state of Tennessee purchased an eighty-two-acre parcel and designated it a State Natural Area, and in 1981 the federal government registered it as a National Natural Landmark. At purchase the property consisted of five acres of good prairie, fifteen acres of degraded prairie (overrun by small trees and shrubs), and sixty-two acres of surrounding forest, to be used as a buffer zone. From aerial photographs taken years earlier, it was possible to identify twenty additional acres of the forest that had been prairie half a century ago. …

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