All too often when referencing a prairie or natural area, the comment, “That’s just a bunch of weeds” is inevitable. To be fair, a lot of natural areas, roadsides. and prairie plantings are plagued by invasive and typically non-native species that are weeds. Including wild parsnip, giant ragweed, amaranth, button weed, certain thistles, reed canary grass, and many more. However, a diverse and established prairie would not feature these common weedy species.
The main problem is that the native Iowa Prairies which once covered around 99% of the landscape have been disturbed by many land-use changes over the years. The types of plants that do best in disturbed landscapes are generally weedy species that easily colonize and take over areas.
The difficultly lies in re-establishing these native prairie roots and plants in order to create the productive habitat that once existed and provides the base of Iowa’s native ecosystem that supports wildlife, healthy soil, and clean water. Native prairie plants include species such as blazingstar, purple prairie clover, culver’s root, butterfly milkweed, common milkweed, partridge pea, bottle gentian, purple coneflower, canada anemone, rosinweed, aster, rattlesnake master, compass plant, wild indigo, big bluestem, little bluestem, indian grass, and hundreds more native species. These plants provide food and shelter for many beneficial insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals.
That is why it is so frustrating to hear prairies called, “Just a bunch of weeds”, because they are so much more than that. They are an example of a healthy, functioning ecosystem that humans rely on to keep our environment in balance. Prairies are an iconic symbol of Iowa and a point of pride in our beautiful, diverse landscape.