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September 9, 2008 / Bo Mackison

Prairie Grasses in Wisconsin

Say the word “prairie” and many people visualize Laura Ingalls in her log cabin or rolling wagons crossing open prairie land, the wagons filled with settlers on their way out West in search for a better life. But I’m thinking most really have no idea of what a prairie looks like up close.

Sure, most know there are lots of sunflowers and yellow goldenrod wildflowers and some tall grass, but ever give thought to the hundreds of varieties of grasses that make up the tall grass and short grass prairie lands. Obvious, right?

Well, maybe not so obvious at all. It’s easy to overlook grasses. I mean, it’s just grass, right?  So let me show you just how different a few of these grasses really are.

Side Oats Grama Grass

Side Oats Grama Grass

This prairie grass is found in the high prairies in southern Wisconsin and extends to central Wisconsin in fewer numbers. It’s one of my favorite grasses to look for – I love the purply-blue fruits hanging in a row like someone pinned them on a clothesline.

When buffalo roamed the region, this was their main source of food. It’s an easy grass to identify – all those oats are hanging off to one “side”. So it is side oats grama grass. Grama is from gramen, the Latin word meaning grass.  1 1/2 to 3 feet tall.

Indian Grass

Indian Grass

Before agriculture and tended crops developed, Indian grass was second only to big blue-stem grass as the most important plant in the tall grass prairie, both in its numbers and in its nutritional content.

It is extremely drought resistant because of it’s extensive deep root system – typical of the prairie plants. The frequent prairie fires do not damage these grasses – they are highly adapted to the burns. This grass was one of the taller one,  usually standing 6 to 9 feet tall.

Canada Wild-Rye Grass

Canada Wild-Rye Grass

This is one of the most important grasses in the tall grass prairie. It acts as a nurse crop for prairie seedlings early in the growing season before it declines as the warm season grasses mature. Canada Wild-rye Grass grows 2 to 5 feet tall and forms a loose sod. Native Americans used the seed for food, as did a multitude of large and small animals.

The grasses had other uses besides as food.They were used as fuels, and also the fibers were woven into mats for internal walls in small cabins, window coverings, and floor coverings.


  1. Joanna Young / Sep 9 2008 3:18 am

    My knowledge of prairies is definitely limited to that of the ‘little house’ variety so thanks for sharing these wonderful photos and information about the grasses.

  2. bernie kasper / Sep 9 2008 7:58 am

    Very nice Bo, great images and info, you really covered it well !!!

  3. Laurie / Sep 9 2008 8:10 am

    Interesting information on some of the varieties of prairie grasses. Gorgeous photos really helped to tell the story.

  4. ceanothe / Sep 9 2008 8:23 am

    J’adore l’élégance de ces herbes, magnifiques photos !
    I love the elegance of these grasses, beautiful photos!

  5. montucky / Sep 9 2008 8:50 am

    Interesting post, Bo! I appreciate seeing some of the prairie plants.

  6. Anna Surface / Sep 9 2008 1:25 pm

    Lovely captures, and wonderful info. I’ve always loved the prairie grasses. I really like the side oats grama grass because of the fat purple. Really nice, Bo. 🙂

  7. amuirin / Sep 14 2008 11:36 pm

    There’s something subtly beautiful about *noticing* the world, the varieties of living things, and remembering their unique, distinctive names.

    You have a way of helping people do that.


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