Deep Roots

Briana Burke, Green Iowa Education Coordinator

Prairies are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world- meaning they have a lot of different types of plants and animals that live there. However, it is also one of the most endangered ecosystems. In Iowa, it is estimated that less than 0.1% of the prairie that used to cover the state remains. In 2002, the Decorah City Council moved to convert what was once a corn field into the community prairie we have today to help mitigate flooding issues. The prairie project became so much more than just improving water quality; the community got excited and came together to make it happen. Hours of work from the community paid off as the prairie was planted and began to grow. Decorah even received an award from the state for the success of the project. Nestled in the middle of town, the Community Prairie has a wonderful story to share of a dedicated community, resilience, deep roots, and even of you!

Since the prairie contains so many plant species, the Butterfly Garden was established in the prairie to showcase over 75 different species to visitors. These plants range from little whimsical prairie smoke flowers, to grasses like the side oats grama, or the towering compass plant that can live over 100 years. Maintained by volunteers, the Butterfly Garden is a labor of love guided by the plant expertise of community members who were called to action in 2002. After the 2008 flood, the garden had been destroyed- plants were missing or moved around, all of the signs had been washed away, and now there were undesired, aggressive plants taking over. Today, it has been restored but still needs consistent upkeep. Every Tuesday, the Butterfly Garden volunteers work on maintaining the garden so that visitors can develop a deeper connection to the plants and insects that depend on the prairie.

Prairies used to cover much of the United States, from Texas to Canada, from the Rocky Mountains to Illinois- one huge expanse of prairie extending from horizon to horizon. It turns out that prairies had to evolve to be incredibly resilient in their 8,000 years covering much of North America. The prairie endured frequent fires, drought, extreme temperature swings, and heavy grazing from large animals. Why would prairies, a grassland ecosystem, evolve in a place that seems so inhospitable to grassland plants? The answer to this lies below the ground- where most of the prairie plant is. Prairie plants store most of their biomass, or the mass that makes up the plant, underground in their roots. What we see above ground is only about 30% of the plant, with 70% reaching deep into the ground as roots. These roots are vital to the plants because they are a place to store nutrients and water so that if a fire or hungry buffalo comes by, the plant can happily regenerate from the roots up. Some plants, such as the compass plant, have roots that can extend up to 15 feet deep! These deep roots also have many small rootlets coming off of them, that if laid out end to end, one average prairie plant’s roots would be over a mile long! These deep roots help them access water in droughts, regenerate after being grazed, or after a fire. The resilience of the prairie, its deep roots, and the ability to come back after a traumatic event, strong as ever, is a poignant concept for us to draw inspiration from during these difficult times.

The impact of the Community Prairie is so extensive, that even if you’ve never visited it, it has impacted your life! Through water retention, pollinator habitat, carbon sequestration, and so much more, the prairie provides services to all of us. A healthy prairie can handle 7 inches of rain without any runoff, a significant help to reduce flooding, and soil erosion. Prairie plants don’t just hold water- they are also vital food and habitat for our pollinators. In fact, some insects rely exclusively on certain plants for food- such as the monarch butterflies and milkweed. Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, where caterpillars will hatch and feast, then crystallize and turn into butterflies. Milkweed is poisonous to other animals and eating it is what makes monarch butterflies poisonous to their predators, which keeps them safe from being eaten. Viceroy butterflies have even mimicked monarch butterflies! Just by looking like monarch butterflies with orange and black wings, predators think the non poisonous viceroy butterflies are poisonous and leave them alone. Bees also need the many flowers of the prairie for food. Threatened by habitat loss and overuse of insecticides, bees need as much help as they can get; they are responsible for pollinating ⅓ of all of the foods we eat. As our society is facing the looming threat of climate change, the ability of prairies to take CO2 from the air and put it into the ground through their roots is another reason to be thankful. Researchers estimate that 1 acre of prairie will take one metric ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year and put it back into the soil. The Community Prairie and Butterfly Garden add value every year to our community, not just to those who visit, but to all who live here.

One of the most important things about prairies is that they actually improve the soil health around them and build soil. They do this by growing their expansive roots, and each year, about ⅓ of their roots die off and build up and enrich the soil with nutrients. Prairie roots dying off every year for the past 8,000 years is what made the rich soil that has allowed agriculture in the United States to flourish. This rich soil around prairies is not dirt, but a living thing that is composed of the most diverse group of soil microorganisms in the world- an essential part of what makes soil soil. 

When the city council decided to put in the hard work of turning a corn field into the Community Prairie and Butterfly Garden, they were doing something similar to what prairies do best, “enriching the soil around them.” And in 2002 when the first volunteers helped create the prairie, they too were “enriching the soil around them”. If you want to make your community a richer place to live and like to be outside, consider volunteering for the Butterfly Garden. They can always use more hands and are set up so that volunteers can be safe and maintain social distancing guidelines. You can even adopt a small plot of the Butterfly Garden and tend to one of the 75 species of plants that live there. If volunteering doesn’t work for you, the Community Prairie and Butterfly Garden are made better when people come to enjoy them. Break up quarantine with some healthy outdoor time to breathe some fresh air and see the many different plants growing, and the bluffs that soar just across the river. Simply taking care of yourself is “enriching the soil around you” too. During these times, our prairie is a beacon of inspiration as we are going through a metaphorical fire, we will come back up from our roots, together, stronger than before and ready to flourish again, just like our prairie.


To Volunteer: Contact Decorah Parks Department 563-382-4158

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