Mesic prairie is a native grassland community dominated by big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). It occurs on loam, sandy loam or silt loam soils on level or slightly undulating glacial outwash. Historically, mesic prairie dominated large portions of the Midwest ranging from Iowa and southern Minnesota east into southwestern Michigan and northern Ohio. In Michigan, mesic prairie occurred historically in Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, Cass, Branch, Calhoun, Berrien, and Van Buren Counties.
County Distribution Map
Global Rank: G2 - Imperiled
State Rank: S1 - Critically imperiled
In Michigan, mesic prairie occurs almost exclusively on glacial outwash on nearly level to slightly undulating sites. Historically, the majority of mesic prairies occurred on the Battlecreek Outwash Plain Sub-subsection within the Kalamazoo Interlobate Subsection. This level outwash plain is the northernmost portion of the “Prairie Peninsula.” In the 1800s, mesic prairie in Michigan frequently bordered beech-maple forest (mesic southern forest) or graded into bur oak plains, which both occupied level outwash plains and grew on similarly rich soils. Where level outwash plains met end moraines and ground moraines with sandy, drier soils, mesic prairie gave way to dry-mesic prairie and oak openings, or oak woodlands (dry-mesic southern forest). Presently, the community is restricted to railroad right-of-ways, cemeteries, and other small remnants that typically border agricultural fields.
Soils supporting mesic prairie are very strongly acid to mildly alkaline loam or sandy loam and occasionally silt loam with moderate water-retaining capacity. The soil profile often contains a B horizon dominated by clay. Mesic prairies in Michigan occur on both mollisols, which are considered true prairie soils, and udic alfisols, which cover much of southern Lower Michigan and are considered gray to brown forest soils.
Historically, fire played a critical role in maintaining the open conditions of Michigan prairie and oak savanna ecosystems. In addition to suppressing the growth of woody vegetation, fire maintains species diversity by facilitating seed germination, creating microsites for seedling establishment, and releasing and recycling important plant nutrients.
While occasional lightning strikes resulted in landscape-scale fires, Native Americans were the main source of ignition prior to European settlement. Native Americans intentionally set fires to clear brush, make land more passable, increase productivity of berry crops and agricultural fields, and improve hunting. The frequency and intensity of historical fires varied depending on the type and volume of fuel, topography, presence of natural firebreaks, and density of Native Americans. The rich soils of mesic prairie promoted very high volumes of fine fuels (e.g., grasses), which enabled fire to rapidly spread throughout the community. On the level outwash plains of southwestern Lower Michigan, annual, wind-swept fires once spread easily through the mesic prairies and bur oak plains. Carried by wind, these fires moved across the outwash plains and up slopes of end moraines and ground moraines, converting oak forests into prairies and oak openings.
Unfortunately, no detailed ecological study of mesic prairie was completed in Michigan before the nearly total demise of the community. What information is available comes from written descriptions by early European settlers and studies of small prairie remnants in Michigan and Wisconsin. Mesic prairies are graminoid-dominated, forb-rich herbaceous communities. The rich loamy soils support a dense to moderately dense growth of medium to tall vegetation. The community is dominated by big bluestem, little bluestem, and Indian grass, which vary in relative dominance. Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) is occasionally subdominant. Several other grasses, including porcupine grass (Hesperostipa spartea), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis, state special concern), Leiberg’s panic grass (Panicum leibergii, state threatened), and switch grass (Panicum virgatum), are important components of mesic prairie elsewhere in the Midwest and are likely to have been important components of mesic prairie in Michigan historically. Characteristic plants of Michigan’s mesic prairies include New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), American hazelnut (Corylus americana), northern bedstraw (Galium boreale), pasture rose (Rosa carolina), prairie willow (Salix humilis), stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida), purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), and bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa).
Ants, particularly the genus Formica, play an important role in mixing and aerating prairie soils as they continually build and abandon mounds, overturning large portions of prairie soil in the process. Other important species contributing to soil mixing and aeration include moles, mice, skunks, and badgers. Historically, large herbivores such as bison likely also significantly influenced plant species diversity in prairie and oak savanna ecosystems. Bison selectively forage on grasses and sedges, thereby reducing the dominance of graminoids and providing a competitive advantage to forb species. Additionally, wallowing and trampling by bison helps promote plant species diversity by creating microsites for seed germination and seedling establishment and reducing the dominance of robust perennials.
- Amorpha canescens (leadplant, state special concern)
- Baptisia lactea (white false indigo, state special concern)
- Baptisia leucophaea (cream wild indigo, state endangered)
- Coreopsis palmata (prairie coreopsis, state threatened)
- Dodecatheon meadia (shooting-star, state endangered)
- Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower, presumed extirpated from Michigan)
- Eryngium yuccifolium (rattlesnake-master, state threatened)
- Gentiana flavida (white gentian, state endangered)
- Houstonia caerulea (bluets, state special concern)
- Oxalis violacea (violet wood-sorrel, state threatened)
- Panicum leibergii (Leiberg’s panic grass, state threatened)
- Polygala incarnata (pink milkwort, presumed extirpated from Michigan)
- Rudbeckia subtomentosa (sweet coneflower, presumed extirpated from Michigan)
- Silphium integrifolium (rosinweed, state threatened)
- Silphium laciniatum (compass-plant, state threatened)
- Sisyrinchium strictum (blue-eyed-grass, state special concern)
- Spiranthes ovalis (lesser ladies’-tresses, state threatened)
- Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed, state threatened)
- Viola pedatifida (prairie birdfoot violet, state threatened)
- Ammodramus henslowii (Henslow’s sparrow, state special concern)
- Ammodramus savannarum (grasshopper sparrow, state special concern)
- Asio flammeus (short-eared owl, state special concern)
- Asio otus (long-eared owl, state threatened)
- Circus cyaneus (northern harrier, state special concern)
- Clemmys guttata (spotted turtle, state threatened)
- Clonophis kirtlandii (Kirtland’s snake, state threatened)
- Elaphe o. obsoleta (black rat snake, state special concern)
- Emydoidea blandingii (Blanding’s turtle, state special concern)
- Flexamia delongi (leafhopper, state special concern)
- Flexamia reflexus (leafhopper, state special concern)
- Lanius ludovicianus migrans (migrant loggerhead shrike, state endangered)
- Microtus ochrogaster (prairie vole, state endangered)
- Papaipema beeriana (blazing star borer, state special concern)
- Papaipema sciata (Culver’s root borer, state special concern)
- Papaipema silphii (silphium borer, state threatened)
- Prosapia ignipectus (red-legged spittlebug, state special concern)
- Pygarctia spraguei (Sprague’s pygarctia, state special concern)
- Schinia lucens (leadplant flower moth, state endangered)
- Sistrurus c. catenatus (eastern massasauga, federal candidate species and state special concern )
- Spartiniphaga inops (spartina moth, state special concern)
- Spiza americana (dickcissel, state special concern)
- Sturnella neglecta (western meadowlark, state special concern)
- Terrapene c. carolina (eastern box turtle, state special concern)
- Tyto alba (barn owl, state endangered)
Biodiversity Management Considerations
Conservation priorities for mesic prairies include identifying, protecting, and managing existing remnants where they occur. Managing mesic prairie requires frequent prescribed burning to protect and enhance plant species diversity, prevent encroachment of trees and tall shrubs, and control non-native invasive species. In addition to prescribed fire, brush cutting accompanied by stump application of herbicide, can be an important component of prairie restoration. To reduce the impacts of management on fire-sensitive species it is important to consider a rotating schedule of prescribed burning in which adjacent management units are burned in alternate years. Alternating burn units provides refugia for fire-intolerant insect species that are then able to recolonize burned areas. Avian species diversity is also thought to be enhanced by managing large areas as a mosaic of burned and unburned patches.
In addition to reestablishing ecological processes such as fire, most restoration sites will require the reintroduction of appropriate native species and genotypes through seeding or seedling transplants. Small, isolated prairie remnants may harbor plant populations that have suffered from reduced gene flow. Restoration efforts at isolated prairie remnants should consider introducing seeds collected from nearby stocks to augment and maintain genetic diversity of remnant plant populations.
Monitoring and control efforts to detect and remove invasive species are critical to the long-term viability of mesic prairie. Invasive species that threaten the diversity and community structure include common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Eurasian honeysuckles (especially Lonicera morrowii, L. tatarica, and L. xbella), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), common St. John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), hawkweeds (Hieracium spp.), white sweet-clover (Melilotus alba), yellow sweet clover (M. officinalis), Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), leafy spurge (Euphorbia virgata), wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), bouncing bet (Saponaria officinalis), Canada bluegrass (Poa compressa), Kentucky bluegrass (P. pratensis), smooth brome (Bromus inermis), quack grass (Elymus repens), and timothy (Phleum pratense).
Prairie plant species diversity is generally higher in occurrences located in far southwestern Michigan than in those located further east or north, likely due to their closer proximity to the central range of prairie in North America.
Similar Natural Communities
- Albert, D.A. 1995. Regional landscape ecosystems of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin: A working map and classification. USDA, Forest Service, North Central Forest Experiment Station, St. Paul, MN.
- Chapman, K.A. 1984. An ecological investigation of native grassland in southern Lower Michigan. M.S. thesis, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI. 235 pp.
- Curtis, J.T. 1959. The vegetation of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI. 657 pp.
- Faber-Langendoen, D., ed. 2001. Plant communities of the Midwest: Classification in an ecological context. Association for Biodiversity Information, Arlington, VA. 61 pp. + appendix (705 pp.).
- Herkert, J.R., R.E. Szafoni, V.M. Kleen, and J.E. Schwegman. 1993. Habitat establishment, enhancement and management for forest and grassland birds in Illinois. Division of Natural Heritage, Illinois Department of Conservation, Natural Heritage Technical Publication #1, Springfield, IL. 20 pp.
- Kost, M.A. 2004. Natural community abstract for mesic prairie. Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Lansing, MI. 10 pp.
- Panzer, R.D., D. Stillwaugh, R. Gnaedinger, and G. Derkowitz. 1995. Prevalence of remnant dependence among prairie- and savanna-inhabiting insects of the Chicago region. Natural Areas Journal 15: 101-116.
- Transeau, E.N. 1935. The prairie peninsula. Ecology 16: 423-437.
For a full list of references used to create this description, please refer to the natural community abstract for mesic prairie.
Kost, M.A., D.A. Albert, J.G. Cohen, B.S. Slaughter, R.K. Schillo, C.R. Weber, and K.A. Chapman. 2007. Natural Communities of Michigan: Classification and Description. Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Report No. 2007-21, Lansing, MI.