Types of Prairie

Wildflowers and grasses on a native Minnesota prairie. Wildflowers and grasses on a native Minnesota prairie. © Katelin Goebel

A native plant community is a group of native plant populations that interact with one another and their environment and have not been significantly altered by human activities or introduced species. Native plant communities form recognizable units that repeat over space and time. The Minnesota DNR classifies native plant communities by their associated plants, hydrology, soils, geology, natural disturbances, and the region where they occur. Learn more about this classification.

 

A Minnesota dry prairie.

Dry Prairies

Dry prairies are dominated by mid‑height grasses, many of them bunch grasses like porcupine grass, prairie dropseed, little bluestem, plains muhly, and grama grasses. Tall prairie grasses are also often present, but less dominant. Common wildflowers include pasque flower, narrow-leaved purple coneflower, silky aster, stiff goldenrod, sages, dotted blazing star, and prairie smoke. Dry prairies often occur on steep slopes such as bluff prairies in southeastern Minnesota. They have coarse, well‑drained soils (including sand and gravel) and often exposed bare ground. The plants here are adapted to these dry conditions.

 

A Minnesota mesic prairie.

Mesic Prairies

Mesic prairies may be dry through most of the year with the water table below the plant roots, but there is adequate moisture to keep this prairie lush. They are often dominated by the tall grasses big bluestem and Indian grass, with a lesser cover of porcupine grass, prairie dropseed, little bluestem, and switchgrass. Abundant wildflowers include Maximilian sunflower, heart‑leaved alexander, goldenrods, purple and white prairie clovers, smooth blue aster, tall meadow‑rue, and wood lily. The short shrubs leadplant, prairie rose, and wolfberry are often also present. These prairies can look very different in drought years versus wet years with species that thrive in those conditions being more abundant. In southern Minnesota, mesic to dry‑mesic prairies can be habitat for the federally threatened prairie bush clover.

 

A Minnesota dry savanna.

Dry and Mesic Savannas

Savannas are prairies with scattered native trees. They form where the frequency and severity of fire are low enough to allow some fire tolerant trees to reach maturity, but with enough fire to maintain prairie plants and prevent trees and shrubs from becoming dominant. Dry savannas have a mix of plants similar to dry prairies with scattered trees. Tree cover usually consists mostly of bur oak, and in southeastern Minnesota can include black oak, pin oak, or jack pine. Savanna trees often have spreading crowns and their trunks may be gnarled. Mesic savannas also occurred historically in Minnesota, though they are almost completely gone due to conversion for other land uses, alteration of disturbances such as fire, and succession to woodlands or forest. Oak savannas are one of Minnesota's rarest native plant communities.

 

A Minnesota wet prairie.

Wet Prairies

Wet prairies contain tall grasses and sedges, often with equal wildflower cover. Big bluestem and prairie cordgrass often dominate though switchgrass, Indian grass, narrow reedgrass, mat muhly, and a number of sedges are also often abundant. Common wildflowers include prairie blazing star, goldenrods, tall meadow‑rue, panicled aster, clasping dogbane, and Virginia mountain mint. Wet prairies are usually saturated for short periods during the year, though the water table remains within the rooting zone. In average years, the plants face neither excessive drying nor lack of oxygen to their roots. The invasive reed canary grass is a serious threat to wet prairie communities. In northern Minnesota, wet prairies can have a significant shrub cover of bog birch, red-osier dogwood, and willows. Wet prairies provide habitat for the western prairie fringed orchid, a federally endangered plant.

 

A Minnesota wet meadow.

Prairie Wet Meadows/Carrs

Prairie wet meadows/carrs  are characterized by mid‑height to tall graminoids (grasses, sedges and rushes), including prairie cordgrass, narrow reedgrass, Sartwell's sedge, Buxbaum's sedge, and woolly sedge. tussock sedge or Canada bluejoint are sometimes dominant. Common wildflowers include giant and sawtooth sunflowers, panicled aster, water smartweed, swamp milkweed, water hemlock, wild mint, and spotted Joe-pye weed. Prairie wet meadow/carr communities in lowlands are found around waterways, shallow depressions, and frequently occur in complexes with wet prairie and marshes. They are generally inundated in the spring with the water table near the surface most years but are dry enough that organic matter decomposes, and peat soils do not form. "Carr" refers to a shrubby wetland. The combination of wet meadow/carr refers to a community with no distinct cutoff between the two. The shrub cover can vary from dominant to absent and it is often highly variable across a site.

Minnesota's prairie landscape is a mosaic of different native plant communities that provide many benefits to the people of Minnesota. Prairie is often intermixed or adjacent to wetlands, rivers and streams, lakes, rock outcrops, and woodlands. Of note, some of the highest quality wetlands, rivers, and streams are those surrounded by native prairies.