Volume IX, No. 3, Spring 1982

Prairie Plants


Written and illustrated by James Heck

Prairies are made of numerous types of grasses, sedges, broad-leaved plants and even some trees. Prairies have their own characteristic plants, some of which grow only on the prairie and some that are common in fields, pastures and along roadsides.

There are three types of land in a prairie--the open prairie, woods and savannah. Open prairies can have as many as 400 kinds of plants in a single prairie, with flowers blooming from late April through October. The variety of shapes and colors is almost unbelievable. These plants have adapted to prairie soils by growing long and very complex root systems, forming a dense carpet of vegetation. This discourages foreign plants and keeps the prairie stable. Fires burning the prairies do not harm the deep root systems which keep the prairie plants coming back, whereas fires kill or stunt trees.

Wooded areas are mostly along streams and on the edges of the prairie where there is more water and less fire. There's a constant war between the open prairie and the woodland plants. The areas between the prairie and woods is called savannah where prairie plants grow into woods and woods invade prairie. Most of the trees in savannahs have corky bark that can withstand fires. If there is a four or five year period with a lot of rain, there will be few fires, and the woods will creep in and thrive, but if there are a few fires in early spring, the prairie grasses will flourish. Burning in March will assure the plants growing back by May.

Prairie grasses are called warm season grasses, and continue to grow into late summer and early fall. There are several different types of grasses on the prairie. Among the most common are big and little bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass, although there are over fifty other grass species that are less common than these.

Prairie fire at Pershing State Park assures plenty of grass. Courtesy Doug Ladd.


1--Big Bluestem

Big Bluestem [Andropogon gerardi]

This four to ten foot tall grass is identified by its purplish hairy stems and lower leaves. The three-branched seed head gave it the nickname turkey foot. The flowering stalks are stout, coarse and solid. The leaf blades are about twelve inches long or more and one-fourth to one-half inch wide and may be hairy near the base. The grass makes good forage for all livestock and if mowed before the stemmy seed heads form, it makes good quality hay. (See ill. 1 )

2--Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem [Andropogon scoparius]

Little bluestem is a vigorous, long-lived warm season bunch grass that can be identified by its purplish color, clumpy growth pattern and flattened stems without seed heads. Big and little bluestem are difficult to tell apart. As the name implies, little bluestem is smaller with stems growing from one to three feet tall. The leaves, from four to eight inches long and one-fourth inch wide, are light green until the plant reaches maturity, then become reddish-brown. It is more drought-resistant than big bluestem and more adaptable, often growing in old fields and pastures. (See ill. 2 )


Switchgrass [Panicum virgatum]

Common on prairie lowlands, switch-grass is recognized by its open seed head. It grows three to five feet high. The green to bluish-green leaves are six to eighteen inches long, one-fourth to one-half inch wide. The grass makes good forage as well as good hay if mowed when the seed heads begin to form. Seeds mature in September. (See ill. 3)

4--Indian Grass. Courtesy Miriam Gray.

Indian Grass [Sorghastrum nutans]

This tall grass is identified by its golden color and the golden-colored four to twelve inch long plume-like seed heads. It grows to six or seven feet and is one of the most common and attractive prairie grasses. (See Ill. 4)


Following are a few of the many flowering plants found on Ozark prairies. The local common name (arranged alphabetically) is followed by the scientific name, the flower's blooming period, a :general description of the plant and what, if anything, the plant is used for by man.

5--Blazing Star

Blazing Star [Liatris pycnostachya] July-October

This is a tall, slender plant often called gay feather, growing from one to six feet tall with thick heads of small purple blossoms that grow along a single stalk. The flowers are on thin spikes on the upper eighteen inches of the stalk. The heads are surrounded by modified leaves that are the same color as the flowers. The leaves are very narrow, up to four inches long. It was formerly used as a snakebite antidote, but its anti-venom properties are not proven. (See ill. 5)


Boneset [Eupatorium perfoliatum] July-October

The small, white flowers are in flat-topped heads. The toothed leaves on opposite sides of the stem join or sort of join together. The pioneers believed that a tea made out of this would set bones because it set the leaves together. Boneset occurs in moist depressions and low areas on Ozark prairies. (See ill.11)


14--Butterfly Weed

Butterfly Weed (Asclepia tuberosa) May-September

This one to three foot plant has brilliant orange flat topped blossoms at the top of the stem. The leaves are hairy and dark green. It is a milkweed with a non-milky sap. It is a very adaptable, resistant and aggresive prairie plant, frequently invading old fields and growing along roadsides. Pioneers used the roots in medicine. (See ill.14)

26--Compass Plant

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) July-September

One of the taller prairie plants, compass plant, ranging up to nine feet tall, is easily recognized by the big yellow flowers along the long stalk and basal, deeply cleft leaves that point north and south to get the maximum sun exposure. The settlers used it for telling directions because the leaves always pointed north and south. The sticky resin on the flowering stalks was used as chewing gum by the Indians. (See ill.26)

6--Cream Wild Indigo

Cream Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucophaea) April-June

This pretty plant has clumps of cream-colored flowers similar to peas. It is low and bushy, growing to twelve inches. The leaves will turn black if they are picked or damaged. The whole plant turns black when dried. The settlers used it as a dye, for crumbled up and boiled, it turns the water blue. This was not as good a dye as the indigo that came from the Caribbean Islands, but it worked. (See ill.6)

15--Goat's Rue

Goat's Rue (Tephrosia virginiana) May-August

This member of the pea family has two-toned flowers--yellow above and pink below. The leaves are on a small stem similar to sensitive plant with eight to fourteen pairs of leaflets and one at the tip. Its roots are a source of rotenone which Indians used as fish poison. (See ill.15)

27--Hoary Puccoon

Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) March-June.

The clusters of orange flowers have five petals coming from a small tube. The hairy slender leaves alternate and are toothless. The hairy stalks are six to ten inches. (See ill.27)

7--Indian Paint Brush

Indian Paint Brush (Castilleja coccinea) April-July

This popular prairie flower growing eight to fifteen inches in height has colored leaves at the top to attract insects to its flowers which are inconspicuous and drab. Indian paint brush is in the snapdragon family. (See ill.7)

8--Ladies Tresses

Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes cernua) Late summer-fall

This is an orchid found in prairies and old fields. The flowers occur in a spiraling arrangement on the stem which grows to eighteen inches. They bloom in the late fall when most other flowers are dead. It is called ladies tresses because it resembles the spiral tresses of a lady's hair. (See ill.8)

16--Lead Plant

Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens) May-August

This plant is common in prairies and glades in Missouri. The flowers are in a long cluster and are violet or purple in color with bright yellow stamens. The hairy leaves on the lead plant are a silvery gray which gives it a leaden color. The color is one theory for how it may have got its name. Another theory for its name was derived from its use in finding lead deposits. Near Galena, Illinois, which was one of the first lead producing areas in the Mid-west, prospectors looked for lead deposits by looking for the lead plant. Lead deposits were found under glacial hill areas and prairies where the soil was shallow. That's where lead plants grow. (See ill.16)


Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis) April-May

The tubular, hooded flowers are yellow, growing in a broad whorl on top of a short plant. The plant is six to ten inches tall when flowering. The long, soft, hairy leaves are deeply toothed and fern-like. This plant is in the snapdragon family. (See ill.17)



Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella) May-August

At first glance, this plant looks like a common milkweed found along a roadside, but a closer examination will disclose the smaller and whiter individual flowers and narrower leaves. The leaf has a rose-pink line running through it, and the entire plant is hairy. Many other kinds of milkweed are found in prairies. (See ill.18)

19--Pale Beard Tongue

Pale Beard Tongue [Pentstemon pallidus] May-July

Small white tubular flowers cluster at the top of a three to four foot stem. The pointed leaves join across the stem from each other. The common name comes from the wooly surface of the pollen-producing organs in flower which resemble a hairy tongue. (See ill.19)

9--Pasture Rose

Pasture Rose [Rosa carolina] June-July

This wild rose is common in open sunny areas, including prairies, glades, fields and roadsides. It has large pink flowers and thorns. The leaflets are in sets of threes. (See ill. 9)

10--Prairie Blue-Eyed Grass

Prairie Blue-eyed Grass [Sisyrinchium campestre] May-June

The small blue flowers have six petals tipped with small points. They are on wiry flattened stems that grow four to twenty-four inches tall, with grasslike leaves. The leaves and height are similar to yellow star grass, but the flowers are smaller and blue. (See ill.10)

28--Cone Flower

Purple Cone Flower [Echinacea pallida] May-July

This well known prairie plant has a showy purple flower with drooping petals on a long stem with the leaves at the base. The stem and the leaves have rough scratchy hairs on them. (See ill.28)

29--Rattlesnake Master

Rattlesnake Master [Eryngium yuccifolium]

A member of the parsley family, this plant looks like a yucca with little spines along the edges of the leaves which are three to twelve inches long. The flower clusters are globe like, greenish-white, at the end of a long stem which grows up to five feet tall. The ball-shaped flowering heads consist of tiny, five-part bluish flowers. One way it might have got its name is that when the dried flowering heads are shaken, they make a rattling sound like a rattlesnake. There are several myths about the plant. Not only do the seeds sound like a rattlesnake, but some say the rattlesnake is afraid of the sound, and that eating the heads will cure poisoning from rattlesnakes. (See ill.29)

20--Sensitive Brier

Sensitive Brier [Schrankia uncinata] May-September

Though found on the prairies, this plant is also found in other habitats. It is easily identified by the double compound leaves that fold up when touched. It has lavender or pink hairlike ball-shaped flowers and prickly stems. The seeds are sometimes used as a laxative. (See ill.20)

21--Shooting Star

Shooting Star [Dodecatheon meadia] April-June

Its flowers are usually lavender, white or red, often with yellow centers, pointing downward with the petals swept back. The flowers are clustered at the top of a leafless long stem. The stem grows to two and a half feet with the broad leaves at the base. (See ill.21)


Spiderwort [Tradescantia ohiensis] May-July

This is a different looking plant. The leaf comes out right under the clusters of purple flowers. It grows well on roadsides, railroads as well as other places. There are several species of spiderwort, but the prairie species is taller than most of them, being up to three feet tall. Spiderwort flowers are very sensitive to certain types of pollution and are sometimes used as monitors. (See ill.22)

23--Stiff Coreopsis

Stiff Coreopsis [Coreopsis palmata] June-July

The bright yellow flowers with each petal having three points or teeth on the end grow on stems one to three feet tall. It is often called tickseed because the seed looks like a tick. (See ill.23)

24--Violet Wood Sorrel

Violet Wood Sorrel [Oxalis violacea] April-July and September-October

This delicate plant has cloverlike, heart-shaped leaves in threes, with delicate violet. The sour leaves are used in salads. The roots are eaten. (See ill.24)


25--Wild Hyacinth

Wild Hyacinth [Camassia scilloides] April-May

The tiny, light blue flowers with six petals are on a stalk one to two feet tall. The leaves are grass-like. It grows in the more open or naturally disturbed areas of a prairie, such as along game trails or on slopes. (See ill.25)

13--Wild Quinine

Wild Quinine, or American Feverfew [Parthenium integrifolium] May-September

The plant, about three feet tall, has heads of small white flowers. The large leaves are irregularily toothed. It was formerly used by the pioneers to quell fevers. The plant contains a chemical principle that is very similar to quinine. Even today people that believe in folk medicine use it rather than aspirin. (See ill.13)


Yarrow [Achillea millefolium] May-November

This plant, which grows up to three feet tall, has white flowers in dense flattish clusters at the top of a long stem. The narrow leaves are fern-like, about ten inches long. It has a strong odor. Yarrow is a useful plant--one that the folklore medicine stories about it are justified because it is a antibiotic that kills germs. The Indians used to pack wounds with it. Since its sap coagulates human blood, it will stop a bleeding wound. (See ill.30)

31--Yellow Flax

Yellow Flax [Linum sulcatum] May-September

Common on glades and in dry open prairies, often in acid soil, this plant grows up to two feet tall. It has narrow inconspicuous leaves and large pale yellow flowers on tiny smooth stems. A cultivated relative of this plant is used to make linen cloth and linseed oil. (See ill. 31)

12--Yellow Star Grass

Yellow Star Grass [Hypoxis hirsuta] April-May, sometimes in fall

This member of the daffodil family is a disturbance-resistant prairie plant that persists in old fields where there was an original prairie matrix. It looks like a grass, but has yellow flowers about a half inch across on thread-like, hairy stems which grow up to six inches tall. (See ill.12)

Appreciation goes to Doug Ladd, Naturalist, Bennett Spring State Park for help on the two prairie articles and for photos 5, 8, 10, 20, 25, 26, 27, and 29.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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