Looking to prairies for lessons in resilience
By Chris LaChance
So much has been written about our historic drought—don’t water, water on certain days, plant drought tolerant plants, replace lawns with gravel and cactus. Perhaps it is time to revisit our ecological heritage to find lessons in the ultimate resilient landscape—our vanishing prairies. Houston sits on a Coastal Plain, flat, and, historically, home to tallgrass prairies where the native grasses were sometimes knee-high and sometimes head-high. Grasses were the dominant vegetation. Now less than one per cent of these remarkable prairies are left. Yes, we love our trees, and trees were and are abundant along rivers and bayous, but for sheer sustainability during droughts or floods, a prairie landscape wins, hands down. The native species that make up the plant pallet of prairie ecosystems include mostly grasses and forbs–herbaceous, flowering plants–and are very heat and drought tolerant. With their deep roots (some grass roots go down 15—30 feet), indigenous prairie plants can adjust to harsher conditions, help absorb and retain rainwater during wet spells, and stabilize soil, preventing erosion. During drought, the plants go dormant, but generally do not die. Because it is ecologically sound, a prairie landscape requires far less water than conventional lawns and none of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In the process, a wonderful, bio-diverse, year-round habitat emerges attracting pollinators of all sorts, including butterflies and beneficial insects, the ones that keep the bad ones in check, song birds, toads, and other wildlife in need of a healthy environment. Conventional, thirsty lawns, the ubiquitous monocultures, offer nothing for wildlife and drain our natural resources and wallets.
If you are not familiar with growing native prairie plants, think of including a few bunching grasses into your existing landscape. Some of my favorite choices are Gulf Muhly, Muhlenbergia capillaries, Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, Indiangrass, Sorghastrum nutans, and Sideoats Gramma, Bouteloua curtipendula, which also happens to be the State Grass of Texas. Planted in groups, they sway in graceful unison with every passing breeze. Backlit with morning or setting sun, they stage a dramatic, glowing focal point. Or try some of these herbaceous plants: Blue Mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum, Gulf Coast Penstemon, Penstemon tenuis, Gayfeather, Liatris mucronata, and Indian Blanket, Guaillardia pulchella. Most prairie plants require full sun, but there is a good selection that can tolerate some shade.
Although urban and suburban settings do not allow for larger prairie installations, a smaller “pocket” prairie can fit a residential space, neighborhood commons area, or schoolyard offering a diverse plant population while keeping down the time, water use, and cost of maintenance once the plants are established. We think of these landscapes as being resource efficient, but beyond that, they are strikingly gorgeous. Subtle and not so subtle differences in textures, forms, shades of green, and a myriad of color combinations rival any standard landscape design.
The drought is offering us a chance to rethink old patterns, learn from teachable moments, and make choices in our landscapes that are more environmentally sound. What our prairies show us, is that by looking to nature, the ultimate teacher, we can have the best of all worlds—beauty and a lasting legacy.
For a look at a native prairie in our area, visit Armand Bayou Nature Center in Pasadena. Prairie restoration efforts there offer a glimpse into the ecology of early Texas when the first explorers and naturalists became captivated and enchanted with the native landscape and when bison still roamed. www.abnc.org
Here are some resources: Gardening with Prairie Plants: How to Create Beautiful Native Landscapes by Sally Wasowski and Bringing Nature Home, How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens by Douglas Tallamy. Web based resources include: The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, www.wildflower.org; and Native American Seed www.seesource.com.
Chris LaChance was a former WaterSmart Coordinator for Texas AgriLife Extension and Texas Sea Grant, part of the Texas A&M University System.