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Prairie Flowers- More than just color on the landscape

This news story was published on August 5, 2016.
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By Mike Webb, Director, Cerro Gordo County Conservation Board

Prairie Scene

Prairie Scene

Including prairie flowers in a home landscaping project or multi acre seeding project does more than just provide bright colors to an area. The colors provided by the prairie flowers are certainly eye catching to us but the flowers are also valuable contributors to the health of our butterfly and insect communities and the health of our soils. The greater the diversity of the flowers the greater the benefits to our wildlife and soils.

Butterflies, bees and many other insects would not survive without flowers. All parts of a flower are used by the butterflies, bees and other insects as a food source. Butterflies, such as the Monarch, use the leaves of a flower, specifically native milkweeds, for food as caterpillars and the flowers as a nectar source as adults. Bees rely exclusively on flowering plants for their food supply, as they must collect the pollen in the flowers to make the honey that they feed upon. The flowering plants depend on the bees to complete their reproductive cycle. Many other native insects are also dependent on flowering plants to complete their life cycle by either feeding on the plant foliage or obtaining nutrition from the flower. Because many flowers have a specific blooming period and the insects and butterflies are active from spring through fall it is important to provide a variety of flowers so that something will always be blooming throughout the growing season.

A major but often unseen benefit of prairie flowers and their associated grasses is their ability to improve soil health and reduce weeds. The root system of prairie plants are extremely elaborate and very good at occupying the soil profile below them. An example of this would be comparing a prairie seeding to a bluegrass seeding. In a typical bluegrass seeding the root system of the plants only extends 4-5 inches into the soil profile, whereas a mixed prairie root system will extent over 10 feet into the soil profile. To see a good example of how root systems work come out to the Lime Creek Nature Center and visit our display on prairies and their root systems. The display shows how the root systems of differing prairie plants interact with each other. With their elaborate root system prairie flowers and grasses are very good at keeping weed species from developing. Prairie flowers and grasses are also very efficient at using the available nutrients in the soil. A study at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge using prairie strips consisting of 30 grasses and flowers in crop fields found that runoff was reduced by 40 percent, soil loss was reduced by 95 percent, phosphorus loss by 90 percent and nitrogen loss by 84 percent. The uptake of these nutrients by the prairie vegetation will keep the nutrients from moving through the soil and downstream with the rain fall. The Cerro Gordo County Conservation Board through its Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management program uses prairie flowers and grasses in its roadside seedings where possible to provide water quality benefits and butterfly and insect habitat. To view some of the roadsides that have been converted to prairie areas visit the Lime Creek Nature Center and pick up brochure on roadside wildflowers or download from our website. If you would like to view a native prairie and all the beauty it has to offer visit Wilkinson Park in Rock Falls and follow the park road along the river. To learn more about butterflies, insects and the plants that benefit them go to the website

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