At one time, Iowa had more prairie for it’s size than any other state in the union. Within ten years of the arrival of the pioneers (mid-1800s) nearly all of it was gone. Less than one tenth of one percent remains. Fortunately, there has been a movement lately to not only preserve what is left, but to restore unused land to native prairie.
Prairies are a diverse and complex ecosystem, supporting a wide range of birds and wildlife. They are also very beautiful, ranging from spring ephermals to an explosion of summer color to the drama of the tall grasses (growing taller than a man)
One of the best places to see prairie being restored is at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa (just this side of Des Moines) They have an excellent, kid-friendly museum and interpretive center, walking trails, and a driving tour. As well as the amazing number of grasses and wildflowers that are being restored, there is an elk herd and a buffalo herd. Several native birds that were believed to be extinct or rarely seen in Iowa have again been sighted here.
Closer to home, Rochester Cemetery near Tipton, Iowa offers a unique and memorable experience. Tucked between farms on a hilly site, it is considered one of the best examples of Oak Savanna in the Midwest and is known for it’s huge white oaks and it’s wildflowers. Growing on land that has never been disturbed, the variety and sheer quantity of flowers is astounding, especially in the spring. Especially the shooting stars. There are, literally, thousands of them, blanketing the ground in every direction, an amazing sight. (Please note: if you do visit, remember that this is still an active cemetery; please be respectful of the gravesites and stay on the mown paths)
For a beautiful guide to the prairies and wildflowers of Iowa, take a look at Iowa’s Wild Places by Carl Kurtz, or visit the Iowa Prairie Network for a listing of the remaining Iowa prairies, information on prairies, a calendar of events and volunteer opportunities. Help keep Iowa’s wild places wild.