Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
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  • 5 Birth of the Prairie State

    Summer blooms of a tallgrass prairie.

    In 1820, Illinois was covered in 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie. This encompassed the upper 2/3 of the state. The remaining 14 million acres were the forested southern 1/3 of the state. This resulted in one of the nick names for the state of Illinois, “the prairie state”. Some of the first Europeans to arrive in Illinois were French explorers. When they looked out on this vast expanse of grass they said the French word “praierie”, meaning meadow. The name and pronunciation have stuck with only the spelling changing slightly.

    Settlers arriving in Illinois believed prairie soil to be poor because no trees grew here. They soon discovered how wrong they were. The plant matter above ground and the extensive roots below ground add important nutrients to the soil especially after a fire.

    The invention of the steel plow in 1837 allowed farmers to break through the long prairie roots and cultivate this rich loamy soil. By 1900, most Illinois prairie had disappeared, with only remnants remaining. What was once prairie is now the bread basket of the world, known for its corn, soybeans, and wheat production.

    While most prairie areas in the United States receive lower than average amounts of rainfall, Illinois prairie receives enough rainfall to support trees. In the past, frequent fire eliminated trees before they became established. Modern society puts out fires that would naturally occur in Illinois to protect homes, businesses, and crops. Today Midewin still uses fire in a prescribed or controlled manner to help reduce trees and other woody species that were once burned by large prairie fires. 

    Today, tallgrass prairie ecosystem is more rare than that of the rain forest. Only one tenth of 1% of the vast Illinois prairie remains. You can visualize this by imagining that your whole body is the state of Illinois. The toenail of your little toe is all that would remain of tallgrass prairie in a state known as “The Prairie State”.

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