Orland Grassland. Photo: Jeanne Muellner
A prairie, French for “meadow,” is an open grassland with no trees. The plants of prairies are a mix of native grasses and forbs (or “wildflowers”). Historically, prairies covered much more of Cook County than any other ecosystem. From Chicago, a person could travel ten miles west through waving prairie grasses before arriving at the woods of the Des Plaines River Valley.
There are many kinds of prairie in the Forest Preserves of Cook County. A few notable varieties include:
Black soil prairies: Often considered the classic prairie type, most black soil prairie was plowed to farm the deep rich soil.
>>>See it at Arthur Janura Preserve in Streamwood; Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester; Beaubien Woods in Chicago.
You Know You’re in a Prairie When:
- You don’t see any trees nearby.
- You spot classic prairie plants such as big or little bluestem, Indian grass, prairie dock and compass plant.
- Your guide won’t stop talking about prairies.
Sand prairies: Predominant in the Calumet region (southeast Chicago into Indiana), these well-drained prairies support dry-adapted plants and animals.
>>>See it at Powderhorn Prairie in Chicago; Sand Ridge Nature Preserve in Calumet City.
Wet prairies: Wet prairies are frequently soggy, with occasional standing water. They support plants, such as cord grass, that “like their feet wet.”
>>>See it at Spring Lake Preserve in Barrington Hills; Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin; Arthur Janura Preserve in Streamwood; Kickapoo Prairie in Riverdale.
Dolomite prairies: The soil of dolomite prairie is just a few inches deep, with dolomite limestone bedrock just beneath. Plants here are extremely hardy. In Cook County, dolomite prairie exists only along the Des Plaines and Sag Valleys.
>>>See it at Theodore Stone Prairie, Hodgkins.
Did You Know?
- Prairies actually need fire. Without fire at least every few years, a prairie will gradually be taken over by shrubs and trees. Settlers wrote of giant prairie fires that swept across the horizon.
- The roots of some prairie plants reach down as deep as 20 feet.
Gravel hill prairies: A prairie on a hill, usually one left behind by a glacier. The plants here are adapted to dry, windy, sunny conditions.
>>>See it at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin; Shoe Factory Hill Prairie Nature Preserve in Streamwood.
Read more about the ecosystems of the Forest Preserves of Cook County: