Wildflowers of the Tall Grass Prairies
By Johnny Caryopsis
Meadow blazingstar, narrow-leaved sunflower, purple prairie-clover, Indian bread root, Culver's root. If these names mean nothing to you, then I pity you, for you have lived your life without experiencing the beauty of the tall grass prairie. But don't despair, for whatever your age, there is still time. Time to see a bright blazingstar wave gently amid a purplish sea of big bluestem grass, silhouetted against a distant thunderstorm. Or time to see a metallic-green bee combing the tiny, tightly packed fuscia-coloured flowers of a purple prairie-clover. Please make the effort to see for yourself, in person, the incredible beauty of the tall grass prairie. Don't just read about it here and gaze at these flat dithered images and think that you know what it's all about. Get up, go to a prairie, wander around, sit down and soak it in. You'll thank me for it! Think of this article as an advertisement for tall grass prairie: "Come and see the Crown Jewels of Manitoba's Wildflowers!". But before we press on to view the gallery of gorgeous blossoms we've prepared for you, a little background.
THE BAD NEWS
The tall grass prairie once stretched, unbroken from Manitoba's Red River Valley south to Texas and east as far as southern Ontario, covering a million square kilometres. Today, it's gone! Yes, an entire, unique ecosystem is gone. What once was a functioning ecosystem, a continuous tapestry of life, a sea of tall grasses teaming with wildlife, is no more. Of Manitoba's original 6000 square kilometres, less than 1/20th of 1% remains. There is nothing left but tiny shards, mere tattered fragments from this great quilt of life. What happened to the tall grass prairie? We did. In a great orgy of European settlement and modern agricultural development the tall grass prairie was swallowed whole, in scarcely 100 years. The living skin of the earth was peeled back and the ground transformed to crop fields. No ecosystem in North America has been so completely obliterated as the tall grass prairie. West coast rain forests? Ha! Lots left by comparison to the tall grass. The fabric of the prairie, its deep rich soils, built up over thousands of years were its undoing. The land had something we wanted and we took it.
THE GOOD NEWS
The good news is that there is still some prairie left, and that most of what's left is, increasingly, being appreciated and, more importantly, protected. But make no mistake, what's left is not the best the prairie had to offer. Virgin, unplowed tall grass prairie that exists today, does so mainly because it was not worth plowing. It was too stony, or the soil too shallow, or too wet. What's left is the dregs of the tall grass prairie. But still, what wonderful dregs they are! And Manitoba has some of the best remaining tall grass prairie on the planet. Thanks largely to the efforts of the Manitoba Naturalists Society and their Tall-Grass Prairie Conservation Project and to the Critical Wildlife Habitat Program of Manitoba Natural Resources we now have a major tall grass prairie preserve in southern Manitoba which protects 2000 ha of this wonderful habitat (see the accompanying article: Manitoba's Tall-Grass Prairie Preserve). There, and at a few other protected sites in Manitoba you can witness the beauty of the prairie and at least begin to imagine the grandeur of this once vast ecosystem.
Carry on to see some of the Wildflowers!
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