Pasque flower on a native Minnesota prairie. © ColdSnap Photography
From the first pasque flower popping up in spring to the waving bronze sheen of Indian grass in late summer, the abundant seasonal growth of prairie plants is the foundation of the prairie food web. They are primary producers, meaning they change abiotic (non-living) matter and energy into the biotic (living) material of the ecosystem. Prairie plants have much of their biomass underground, constantly growing new roots and horizontal underground stems known as rhizomes, as well as storing carbon in the soil. Plants have built rich dark prairie soils over thousands of years.
Sunlight, Water, and Carbon Dioxide
All green plants need nutrients to thrive, but for photosynthesis and growth, they need three things above all others: sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. Many prairie plants have adapted to maximize photosynthesis and minimize water loss, such as some of the dominant prairie grasses (warm-season grasses). Prairie wetland plants generally do not face problems with water loss, but instead struggle with getting oxygen to their roots. These plants often have special tissues (called aerenchyma) that allow oxygen to diffuse through the plant. The spongy tissue inside the leaves and around the rhizomes of cattails is an example.
Some also have adaptations that discourage herbivores, attract pollinators, reduce moisture loss, and disperse seeds.
Disturbance and Rejuvenation
Most prairie plants require an ecological disturbance. A healthy prairie ecosystem thrives as a result of disturbances not despite them. Fire, grazing, droughts, cold Minnesota winters, and severe storms are all disturbances that can affect the aboveground portions of prairie plants. Disturbances maintain diversity and productivity of many prairie plants. However, excessive disturbance can be detrimental.
Prairie plants are well adapted to prairie disturbances. For example, some prairie grasses have growth points below ground (such as big bluestem and Indian grass) and some have growth points right at the ground surface (such as prairie dropseed), which allows them to resume growth after fire, grazing and other disturbances. Trees like cottonwood and bur oak often have very thick bark to withstand fire.
Grass stems amazingly withstand blowing in the wind. This comes from having supportive tissue concentrated around the outside of the stem (somewhat like a pipe), and leaf bases which sheath the stem and provide flexible support. Many grasses, like western wheatgrass and slimstem reedgrass, also have leaves that fold or roll up which reduces their surface area and water loss.
Prairies are home to many plant species, and it is all these species interacting with each other and their environment that makes the prairie unique. Find out what is native in your county or region using the MNTaxa Checklists or Minnesota Wildflowers.
Plants rarely found outside native prairie
Report Rare Species Sightings
You don't have to own or manage prairie to be helpful! Reporting rare species helps the DNR and other science organizations understand where plants and wildlife are, how they are using habitat, and what they need in order to persist. Learn more about Minnesota's rare species on the DNR's Rare Species Guide.