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Restoring the Tallgrass Prairie

An Illustrated Manual for Iowa and the Upper Midwest

Shirley Shirley

Publication Year: 1994

Iowa is the only state that lies entirely within the natural region of the tallgrass prairie. Early documents indicate that 95 percent of the state—close to 30 million acres—was covered by prairie vegetation at the time of Euro-American settlement. By 1930 the prairie sod had been almost totally converted to cropland; only about 30,000 acres of the original “great green sea” remained. Now, in this gracefully illustrated manual, Shirley Shirley has created a step-by-step guide to reconstructing the natural landscape of Iowa and the Upper Midwest.

Chapters on planning, obtaining and selecting plants and seeds, starting seeds indoors, preparing the site, planting, and maintenance set the stage for comprehensive species accounts. Shirley gives firsthand information on soil, moisture, sun, and pH requirements; location, size, and structure; blooming time and color; and propagation, germination, and harvesting for more than a hundred wildflowers and grasses.

Shirley's sketches—all drawn from native plants and from seedlings that she grew herself—will be valuable for even the most experienced gardener. While other books typically feature only the flowering plant, her careful drawings show the three stages of the seedlings, the flower, and the seedhead with seeds as well as the entire plant. This practical and attractive volume will help anyone dedicated to reconstructing the lost “emerald growth” of the historic tallgrass prairie.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

Iowa was at one time in the midst of the tallgrass prairie, but today few Iowans know what a prairie looks like. They are not aware of which species of plants are native and which are alien or cultivated. That is because less than 1 percent of the prairie remains, mostly in obscure places along rivers, steep banks, railroads, and cemeteries. As the sites have diminished, so...

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p. xiii

My knowledge of the tallgrass prairie began with Douglas Sheeley, Hardin County roadside manager, who taught me how to identify the native species and where to find them on over eighty remnant sites in Hardin County. This learning experience with collection of seeds continued as I cataloged...

I. History, Planning, and Planting

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1. Leaders in the History of the Tallgrass Prairie

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pp. 3-5

The tallgrass prarie covered 250 million acres of the Midwest for over 8,000 years. This prairie had been dominated by over 30 species of grasses and over 250 forbs, which had been kept alive by the natural prairie fires. Willa Cather describes the prairie of copper drenched in sunlight in so much motion as if it were running to...

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2. Planning Your Site

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pp. 7-18

To locate a natural prairie, get to know other people who have been interested in native plants. Directories of state preserves can be obtained from departments of natural resources in most prairie states, and private organizations such as the Nature Conservancy have directories of prairies they are conserving. Nature walks organized to prairie sites and membership...

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3. Obtaining and Selecting Plants and Seeds

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pp. 19-32

With native plants diminishing in number, it is ecologically detrimental to dig up wild plants. All plants should be left in their preferred environment in the wild. Some have deep taproots that cannot be disturbed for transplanting once they are established. (However, if you discover that an area is going to become a construction site, then do try to save the plants from...

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4. Starting Seeds Indoors

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pp. 33-36

Follow methods in the species section to break dormancy for successful germination. Seeds can be stratified during the winter for the recommended period and planted in February or March. Some will germinate within a week, while others can take over three months. Germination will vary with species, temperature, moisture, and the age of the seed. Be patient...

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5. Preparing the Site for Planting

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pp. 37-40

The 1991 Code of Iowa "Primary Noxious Weeds" lists quack grass, perennial sow thistle, Canada thistle, bull thistle, field bindweed, horse nettle, leafy spurge, hoary cress (perennial pepper-grass), Russian knapweed, tall thistle, musk thistle, and buckthorn. "Secondary Noxious Weeds" are wild mustard, velvetleaf (butterprint), cocklebur, wild carrot, shattercane, buckhorn...

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6. Planting

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pp. 41-45

Your decision to plant in fall or spring is based on the factors of weed competition, moisture, and stratification for germination. Seeds planted in May and June, with the first two weeks in June being preferred, avoid competition with the early, rapid weed growth. Forb seeds that prefer cool soil, as listed, will lie dormant until fall or the next spring. Warm-season prairie...

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7. Maintenance

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pp. 47-57

Water the soil for three weeks after planting for good germination. Water one-half-inch deep during seed establishment if rain does not provide this within a week. If you can water thoroughly right after planting, by all means do so. Irrigation beyond three weeks may stimulate weed growth. Sandy soil may need watering...

II. Prairie Species

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8. Wildflowers

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pp. 61-253

Name and classification: So that plants may be compared for their similarities, they are arranged first by family, then by scientific name of genus and species. Common names are given, with the first one listed according to L. J. Eilers. Family characteristics are described in the appendix. Dicotyledonous forbs are presented first, with monocotyledonous forbs following...

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9. Grasses

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pp. 255-277

Name and classification: All are native grasses of the Poaceae (Gramineae) family and are monocotyledons. This important grass family has about 525 genera and 5,000 species, providing food for both humans and animals. L. J. Eilers lists 151 native species in Iowa. The most prominent are big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, and prairie...


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pp. 279-287

Pictorial Glossary

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pp. 289-293

Order of Blooming

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pp. 295-298

Butterfly Habitats

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pp. 299-302

Family Characteristics

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pp. 303-306

Sources for Seeds, Plants, and Equipment

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pp. 307-310

Organizations Promoting Restoration

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pp. 311-313


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pp. 315-322


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pp. 323-332

E-ISBN-13: 9781587292200
E-ISBN-10: 1587292203
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877454694
Print-ISBN-10: 0877454698

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 1994

OCLC Number: 44965793
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Restoring the Tallgrass Prairie

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Subject Headings

  • Prairie restoration -- Iowa.
  • Prairie plants -- Middle West.
  • Prairie plants -- Iowa -- Identification.
  • Prairie plants -- Middle West -- Identification.
  • Prairie plants -- Iowa.
  • Prairie restoration -- Middle West.
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