Ask a naturalist – Restoring the prairie

c-prairieNorth Mississippi Park Prairie


Q: What is a prairie and why do you have one at the park?


North Mississippi Regional Park is named for the Mississippi River that forms its eastern boundary, but the river is only the most obvious type of habitat the park has to offer. Up from the river and away from forested patches, lies one of the more unusual parts of the park, the restored prairie, which stretches to the north and south of the nature center.

The original tallgrass prairie was a vast sea of grass and flowers stretching across the middle of the continent, sometimes reaching as tall as a horse’s head. That grass sea once covered a third of the area of Minnesota, or about 18 million acres! Today only about 235,000 acres are left, the rest having been consumed mostly by farmland. Tallgrass prairie is the most endangered ecosystem in North America. Only between 1-4 percent remains, of the original 170 million acres, in patches scattered among several states and provinces.

Tallgrass prairie was maintained by the herds of bison that roamed across it as well as periodic fires, both of which kept trees from encroaching the landscape. Fires occurred naturally, set by lightning, and also by Native American tribes that knew the bison they hunted would be drawn to the lush new growth that springs forth from the prairie grasses’ deep roots after the surface burns. However, this landscape also made excellent farmland, which is why so much of it disappeared under the steel plows of European settlers.

Many parks and individuals are now trying to restore prairie on the lands they control, to provide habitat for the hundreds of species of plants and animals that call the prairie home. The process is an involved one. First, the existing vegetation (typically invasive and other non-native species) must be removed through a mix of physical removal, burning and herbicide application. Tilling the soil and doing a second round of weed removal may be necessary before the soil is prepared for planting. Seeds for grasses and flowers native to the area and appropriate for the landscape are then spread over the soil. To maintain the prairie and keep invasive plant species under control, the prairie should be burned and/or mowed every few years.

Here in our park we have only a few acres of restored prairie, far from enough to support bison or other large prairie animals. But you can see all kinds of smaller animals that have made their home amidst a range of different colored flowers and grasses. The easiest to find are the many species of bees, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers and other insects that keep the prairie abuzz. But if you look closely and are lucky you can see toads, snakes, rabbits, deer, foxes, coyotes and groundhogs. During the warmer months bird life is abundant, including American goldfinches, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows and many more.

Take advantage of having this rare habitat right in your neighborhood! Explore on your own, or come to the nature center for one of our naturalist-guided activities. You can also borrow backpacks with items like bug-catching nets, binoculars and activities for kids from our front desk.

Come celebrate one of our favorite prairie animals at Marvelous Monarchs Family Funday on September 9 from 1:30-3 p.m. We’ll have all kinds of monarch-related games and activities for the whole family. If you have young children, come to our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under age six and an adult to explore the outdoors and learn about seasons, plants and animals.

September Public Programs

September 1 – Beginner Birding Basics: learn how to search for birds while on a naturalist-guided hike, 9-10:30 a.m.

September 9 – Marvelous Monarchs: try catching and tagging Monarch butterflies in the prairie before they migrate south, 1:30-3 p.m.

September 15—Hike: Down by the Riverside: explore the banks of the Mississippi with a naturalist, 2-3 p.m.

September 19—Nature Nuts Play Group: four weeks of adult/child nature exploration, 10:45-11:45 a.m. For ages 5 and under with an adult. $16 for four weeks.

September 22—Autumn Arts and Animals: celebrate the fall equinox with art projects and meet an animal, 1-3 pm.

September 29—Outdoors: Incredible Insects: go outside with a naturalist seeking insects both creepy and beautiful, 1-2:30 p.m.

Find registration/info for these programs at or 612-370-4844. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it to and it could appear in a future article. This month look for some prairie flowers in the park or your neighborhood! Create a drawing or take a picture and think about what you like about that flower. Then show and tell a naturalist at the front desk to receive a prize! Any images people would like to share will be displayed at the Center for the month of September. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!


This article was written by Victoria Thompson, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalist, North Mississippi Regional Park