Native prairie plants make wonderful habitat for wildlife like voles, turkeys, rabbits, ground squirrels, hawks and foxes. They provide both habitat and food sources for tiny creatures such as monarch butterflies, bumblebees and milkweed beetles. They are beautiful to look at.
However, they are also important in a way that we can't see.
Deep down in the dark depths of the soil, prairie plants are working their wonders through their root systems as well.
They act as a natural landscape sponge.
Typical turf grass is an exotic species, like Kentucky bluegrass, and its root systems only grow about 4 inches deep. That means when rain falls more than those short roots can absorb, the water will pool and run off of the lawn and into the storm sewer. It takes with it sediment, pesticides and fertilizers that are on the landscape, and that dirty water then runs directly into the nearest body of water. In Okoboji, that is our Iowa Great Lakes.
Native tallgrass prairie species can absorb 9 inches of rainfall per hour before any kind of runoff occurs, and one acre of established prairie will intercept as much as 53 tons of water during a one-inch per hour rain event.
Native prairie plants help water move through the watershed.
Instead of runoff going into our storm sewers, native prairie plants help water absorb deep into the soil. With roots as deep as 5, 10 or even 15 feet, approximately 70 percent of each plant, they suck water deep into the earth. That water then makes its way through the local watershed, and as it does, the water is decontaminated and cleaned. By the time it ends up in the nearest body of water, that water is clean and quality.
Prairie plants assist with erosion.
Native prairie plant systems are the best natural soil anchors on earth, because they go so deep. One acre of established prairie can produce 24,000 pounds of roots, according to Iowa State University, and those root systems will make sure that the land stays in place.
They're easy to care for.
Natives are just that, native. That means that they are specially adapted to live in our climate. Once they are established, they require little or no watering. They can survive droughts better than exotic species, because their root systems grow so deep. There is no fertilization needed either.