Prairies dominated the landscape of southwestern Wisconsin until the late 1800’s. This ecosystem is characterized by the presence of grasses, grasslike plants called sedges, and flowering plants called forbs.
The Prairie Demonstration Gardens at Cave of the Mounds represent what is called a dry prairie. This type of prairie requires very little water.
The soil here typically is dry and shallow over limestone bedrock. Prairie plants are adapted for this hot, breezy, mostly dry environment and have leaves that are long and thin to prevent overheating. Some plants have fleshy leaves with hairy or sticky surfaces, aiding in the retention of moisture. Dry prairies rely on fire to prevent invading trees and shrubs from slowly turning grasslands into forest. Therefore, prairie plants are also specially adapted to the natural fires that occurred in the grassland ecosystems. Little bluestem, sideoats grama, coneflower, and milkweed are common plants in this type of prairie environment.
Prairie edge environments, where grasslands creep toward the forest, sometimes contain oak trees littered about, criss-crossing the prairie. Early visitors called these “oak openings.” We know them today as oak savannas – a species-rich ecological community characterized by frequent fire and open-grown trees. The shade from a prairie oak creates a microclimate under the cover of its boughs, allowing broad-leaf prairie plants to thrive in the cooler, moister soil.
Dry, upland prairie ecosystems have long provided crucial wildlife habitat for many species. Long ago, farmers who settled in southwestern Wisconsin began to change its hardy prairie ecosystems with the introduction of agriculture. They unwittingly destroyed and fragmented the land creating prairie remnants and disconnected landscapes. Butterflies, moths, bees, and hundreds of other insects rely on host plants in the prairie for breeding. Snakes, fox, deer, and other animals use the prairie for food, cover, and to raise their young. Birds such as meadowlarks, bobolinks, vesper and grasshopper sparrows, dickcissels, and upland sandpipers once thrived here, but now the population of these birds is declining worldwide – along with the prairie.
“Your flower gardens are a huge asset to this facility”– Comment from a French student visiting Wisconsin
Cave of the Mounds is proud to support the ecological restoration of prairies and oak savannas through ecologically friendly land management practices such as bi-annual fire to prevent the spread of buckthorn, honeysuckle, and other invasive trees and shrubs, limited to zero garden water use to support the dry prairie type, prairie plant propagation & seed collection. The Prairie Demonstration Gardens behind the Visitor Center is where the seeds of native wildflowers are collected for use in future prairie plantings. The oak savanna along the Oak Valley Loop of our interpretive trails is being restored by the removal of invasive plants such as garlic mustard and by slowly replacing the non-native trees & shrubs with grassland species that would have likely grown in the original oak savannas of southwest Wisconsin.
To learn more about the prairies of southwestern Wisconsin click here.
Travel Green Wisconsin: Cave of the Mounds is proud to be a charter member of the Travel Green Wisconsin certification program which encourages businesses to adopt sustainable practices in order to reduce their environmental footprint.