Common (Translated Scientific) Name: Big Bluestem - Indiangrass - Dense Blazingstar Tallgrass Prairie Macrogroup
Colloquial Name: Central Lowlands Tallgrass Prairie
Hierarchy Level: Macrogroup
Type Concept: This macrogroup encompasses tallgrass prairie grasslands occurring on glacial features and flat to rolling landscapes across North America from Texas to Manitoba where fire regularly occurs. It includes perennial grassland species and associated forb species across its range. Predominant grass species include Andropogon gerardii, Panicum virgatum, Schizachyrium scoparium, and Sorghastrum nutans. Northern mesic sites may also include Sporobolus heterolepis and Muhlenbergia richardsonis. Drier, rocky sites contain Bouteloua curtipendula and Hesperostipa spartea. Southward, dominants may also include Tripsacum dactyloides and Paspalum plicatulum. A wide diversity of forbs are present and even dominant, including Achillea spp., Echinacea spp., Helianthus spp., Liatris spp., Lobelia spicata, Ratibida pinnata, Silphium spp., Solidago spp., and Symphyotrichum spp. Woody species are rare but rockier sites may contain scattered trees tolerant of droughty conditions and periodic fire, such as Quercus macrocarpa and Pinus banksiana. A wide variety of forbs can contribute to the vegetation cover. Species composition varies geographically. Grazing and fire influenced species composition and distribution of this macrogroup historically, but a substantial reduction in fire frequency has allowed woody plants or other grasses to become dominant in many examples. Poor grazing practices can lead to soil erosion and invasion by cool-season grasses such as Bromus inermis and Poa pratensis. Much of this macrogroup has been converted to agriculture and very few unaltered examples persist in the current, highly fragmented landscape.
Diagnostic Characteristics: Tallgrass prairie typically dominated by the grasses Andropogon gerardii, Panicum virgatum, Schizachyrium scoparium, and Sorghastrum nutans with <10% tree and <25% shrub cover. Northward, mid-height associates include Sporobolus heterolepis and Muhlenbergia richardsonis along with native C-3 graminoids, such as Carex spp., Dichanthelium spp., and Hesperostipa spartea. Southward, dominants may also include Tripsacum dactyloides and Paspalum plicatulum. A suite of diagnostic forbs needs to be developed, including Achillea spp., Echinacea spp., Helianthus spp., Liatris spp., Lobelia spicata, Ratibida pinnata, Silphium spp., Solidago spp., and Symphyotrichum spp.
Rationale for Nominal Species or Physiognomic Features: Andropogon gerardii and Sorghastrum nutans are typical tallgrass dominants, but they can occur in other macrogroups. Liatris spicata is primarily restricted to the tallgrass prairie region, though most common in the eastern and northern parts. It is also a forb, which highlights their contribution to the diversity of the type.
Classification Comments: This macrogroup (M054) includes sandy and rocky prairies in the northern and central Midwest but does not include the Sandhills or sand prairies in the western Great Plains, including states such as the Dakotas, Kansas or Nebraska. Those are covered by Great Plains Sand Grassland & Shrubland Macrogroup (M052).
Similar NVC Types:
M012 Central Midwest Oak Forest, Woodland & Savanna, note: can be very similar in its savanna portion but has >10% tree cover.
M151 Great Plains Forest & Woodland, note:
M052 Great Plains Sand Grassland & Shrubland, note: "can also be found on sand but tends to be dominated by Andropogon hallii and Calamovilfa longifolia and not Andropogon gerardii, Sorghastrum nutans, and Panicum virgatum. It is generally found further west than the sand/gravel portion of M012."
M051 Great Plains Mixedgrass & Fescue Prairie, note:
Physiognomy and Structure: Tallgrass prairie is characterized by perennial C-4 grasses with flowering culms that reach heights of 2 m (6 feet) or more when they mature in late summer. Tallgrass prairie has the greatest number of native plant species of any of the mid-continent North American prairies. The very tall grasses are accompanied by numerous shorter grasses and many perennial forbs. Some stands are dominated by forbs (Woodward 2008).
Floristics: Andropogon gerardii is the characteristic tall sod-forming grass, with Sorghastrum nutans. Schizachyrium scoparium and Sporobolus heterolepis are common mid- to tall-sized bunchgrass associates. Bouteloua curtipendula is an important short bunchgrass on sandy or gravelly soils, or in Texas hay meadows occurring on deep clays. On wetter sites Calamagrostis canadensis, Calamagrostis stricta, Panicum virgatum, and Spartina pectinata can be abundant. Southward, dominants may also include Tripsacum dactyloides and Paspalum plicatulum. Forbs are very common and a wide variety can be found across the range of this macrogroup. Among these are Achillea spp., Echinacea spp., Helianthus spp., Liatris spp., Lobelia spicata, Ratibida pinnata, Silphium spp., Solidago spp., and Symphyotrichum spp. (Woodward 2008). An example of the diversity of forbs found in tallgrass prairie in central Illinois include the following: A suite of diagnostic forbs, ranking among dominants in Illinois prairies, would include Comandra umbellata, Eryngium yuccifolium, Euphorbia corollata, Fragaria virginiana, Helianthus grosseserratus, Helianthus pauciflorus (= Helianthus rigidus), Liatris pycnostachya, Liatris spicata, Oligoneuron rigidum, Parthenium integrifolium, Phlox pilosa, Ratibida pinnata, Silphium laciniatum, Silphium integrifolium, Silphium terebinthinaceum, and Symphyotrichum ericoides (J. Taft pers. comm. 2014). Scattered shrubs include Amorpha canescens, Ceanothus americanus, Corylus americana, and Rosa carolina. The actinorhizal shrub Ceanothus americanus has been shown to structure mesic tallgrass prairie (Taft and Dawson 2011).
Dynamics: Disturbance is necessary to maintain and rejuvenate stands of this macrogroup, because climatic conditions are suitable for the growth of trees and/or shrubs. Historically, fire, grazing, and periodic drought prevented woody species from displacing grassland vegetation and also provided a variety of conditions across the landscape fostering species richness (Anderson 1990b). The fire-return interval in the Central Tallgrass Prairie region has been estimated at 3-5 years (Wright and Bailey 1982b). This return interval, combined with the patchy nature of burned versus unburned areas affected by fires, are sufficient to suppress the expansion of woody species and promote a diverse assemblage of herbaceous species (Risser 1990). In Illinois, maximum species diversity is maintained by frequent fire (every 1-2 years) (Bowles and Jones 2013), but in other parts of the region, such frequent fires may lead to strong dominance by grasses. The dominant grasses also exhibit a compensatory growth response to clipping and/or burning, which could be in response to a nutrient flush (particularly in the form of potash) that follows a burn (Ehrenreich 1959). The removal of litter/mulch by fire also increases the exposed soil surface, allowing more light to reach the ground.
While shrub thickets locally are (were) part of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, the widespread expansion of shrubs largely is an artifact of an altered fire regime resulting in reduced fire frequency and is one of the greatest management concerns and threats to biodiversity in the region of the tallgrass prairie (e.g., Briggs et al. 2005, Taft and Kron 2014).
Environmental Description: The climate of the bulk of the range of this macrogroup is interior continental, characterized by cold winters and hot summers. Mean January minimum temperatures range from below 0°F near the Canadian border to approximately 45°F on the Texas coast. Mean July maximum temperatures range from approximately 80°F near the Canadian border to 95°F in eastern Texas. Annual precipitation ranges from under 50 cm (20 inches) in the north to approximately 127 cm (50 inches) on the Gulf coast (PRISM Climate Group 2014). Late-spring and early-summer months have the most rain and, in the north, snowmelt adds to available moisture. Tallgrass prairie often grows on unconsolidated parent materials derived from glacial deposits and loess of Pleistocene age. Soils range from deep Mollisol and sandy/gravelly soils to thin, rocky soils. Grasslands on blackland Vertisols and sandy clay loam Alfisols in Texas and Gulf coastal prairies are also included in this macrogroup. The most common single soil type is Mollisols, which have deep horizons containing much humus from decaying plant material that often produces a dark blackish brown coloration. The deep roots of the grass and capillary action bring calcium carbonate up into the subsoil (B-horizon) and raise the pH to neutral or slightly basic levels. Distinct carbonate nodules do not usually form. True chernozems have formed in this part of the biome. A major exception to the characteristically deep soils occurs in the Flint Hills in eastern Kansas and Osage Hills in western Oklahoma, where rocky soils cover limestone in places. Shallow-soil prairies over limestone also occur commonly in western Missouri (Nelson 2005) and locally in northern Illinois (including gravel substrates). Prairies on deep sand deposits are present at several locations in the northern half of Illinois (Gleason 1910, Ebinger et al. 2006).
Geographic Range: Tallgrass prairie occurs in a band from southern Manitoba, Canada, south to the Gulf coast of Texas and includes the Prairie Peninsula, where annual precipitation is considerably more than 50 cm (20 inches) a year. Tallgrass prairie may once have covered 150,000 square km (400,000 square miles). Most prairie has long since vanished under the plow. Large tracts are uncommon; many reserves are less than 0.08 square km (20 acres) in size. Important remnants occur in the Loess Hills of western Iowa, the Prairie Coteau in eastern South Dakota, the Flint Hills in Kansas, Osage Hills in Oklahoma, Osage Plains in Kansas, and the Fort Worth Prairie in Oklahoma and Texas (Woodward 2008).
Nations: CA, MX?, US
States/Provinces: AR, IA, IL, IN, KS, LA, MB, MI, MN, MO, ND, NE, OH, OK, ON, SD, TX, WI
|US Forest Service Ecoregions (2007)|
Southwest Plateau and Plains Dry Steppe and Shrub Province
Confident or certain
Wisconsin Central Sands Section
Confident or certain
Confidence Level: High
Confidence Level Comments:
Synonomy: > Blackland Prairie (Andropogon-Stipa): 76 (Küchler 1964) [Küchler types 74, 76 and 77 are included in this macrogroup.]
> Bluestem Prairie (601) (Shiflet 1994) [Equivalent to M054 from North Dakota to Kansas and possibly into eastern Oklahoma.]
> Bluestem Prairie (710) (Shiflet 1994) [Equivalent to M054 in the Osage Hills of Oklahoma (southern Flint Hills).]
> Bluestem Prairie (Andropogon-Panicum-Sorghastrum): 74 (Küchler 1964) [Küchler types 74, 76 and 77 are included in this macrogroup.]
> Bluestem-Sacahuista Prairie (711) (Shiflet 1994)
> Bluestem-Sacahuista Prairie (Andropogon-Spartina): 77 (Küchler 1964) [Küchler types 74, 76 and 77 are included in this macrogroup.]
> Coastal Prairie (Barbour and Billings 2000) [Coastal Prairie and Tallgrass Prairie equal M054.]
> Dry-mesic Prairie (Curtis 1959)
> Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie (Lauver et al. 1999)
> Little Bluestem-Indiangrass-Texas Wintergrass (717) (Shiflet 1994)
> Mesic Prairie (Curtis 1959)
= Prairie (Weaver and Fitzpatrick 1934) [Simply called "true prairie," the authors provide one of the first detailed tallgrass prairie descriptions across the central region.]
> Tallgrass Prairie (Barbour and Billings 2000) [Coastal Prairie and Tallgrass Prairie equal M054.]
= True and Upper Coastal Prairie grassland (Diamond and Smeins 1988)
> Wet-mesic Prairie (Curtis 1959)
Concept Author(s): J.E. Weaver and T.J. Fitzpatrick (1934)
Author of Description: S. Menard, J. Drake, D. Faber-Langendoen, B. Hoagland, D. Diamond
Version Date: 15Oct2014
- Anderson, R. C. 1990b. The historic role of fire in the North American grassland. In: S. L. Collins and L. L. Wallace. Fire in the North American tallgrass prairies. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- Barbour, M. G., and W. D. Billings, editors. 1988. North American terrestrial vegetation. Cambridge University Press, New York. 434 pp.
- Barbour, M. G., and W. D. Billings, editors. 2000. North American terrestrial vegetation. Second edition. Cambridge University Press, New York. 434 pp.
- Bowles, M. L., and M. D. Jones. 2013. Repeated burning of eastern tallgrass prairie increases richness and diversity, stabilizing late successional vegetation. Ecological Applications 23:464-478.
- Briggs, J. M., A. K. Knapp, J. M. Blair, J. L. Heisler, G. A. Hoch, M. L. Lett, and J. K. McCarron. 2005. An ecosystem in transition: Causes and consequences of the conversion of mesic grassland to shrubland. BioScience 55(3):243-254.
- Curtis, J. T. 1959. The vegetation of Wisconsin: An ordination of plant communities. Reprinted in 1987. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. 657 pp.
- Diamond, D. D., and F. E. Smeins. 1988. Gradient analysis of remnant true and upper coastal prairie grasslands of North America. Canadian Journal of Botany 66:2152-2161.
- Ebinger, J. E., L. Phillippe, R. Nyboer, W. McClain, D. Busemeyer, K. Robertson, and G. Levin. 2006. The vegetation & flora of the sand deposits of the Mississippi River Valley. Illinois Natural History Survey Bulletin 37. 48 pp.
- Ehrenreich, J. H. 1959. Effects of burning and clipping on growth of native prairie in Iowa. Journal of Range Management 12:133-137.
- Faber-Langendoen, D., J. Drake, S. Gawler, M. Hall, C. Josse, G. Kittel, S. Menard, C. Nordman, M. Pyne, M. Reid, L. Sneddon, K. Schulz, J. Teague, M. Russo, K. Snow, and P. Comer, editors. 2010-2019a. Divisions, Macrogroups and Groups for the Revised U.S. National Vegetation Classification. NatureServe, Arlington, VA. plus appendices. [in preparation]
- Gleason, H. A. 1910. The vegetation of the inland sand deposits of Illinois. Illinois Natural History Survey Bulletin 9(3):23-174.
- Küchler, A. W. 1964. Potential natural vegetation of the conterminous United States. American Geographic Society Special Publication 36. New York, NY. 116 pp.
- Lauver, C. L., K. Kindscher, D. Faber-Langendoen, and R. Schneider. 1999. A classification of the natural vegetation of Kansas. The Southwestern Naturalist 44:421-443.
- LNHP [Louisiana Natural Heritage Program]. 2009. Natural communities of Louisiana. Louisiana Natural Heritage Program, Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, Baton Rouge. 46 pp. [http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/page_wildlife/6776-Rare%20Natural%20Communities/LA_NAT_COM.pdf]
- Minnesota DNR [Minnesota Department of Natural Resources]. 2005b. Field guide to the native plant communities of Minnesota: The Prairie Parkland and Tallgrass Aspen Parklands provinces. Ecological Land Classification Program, Minnesota County Biological Survey, and Natural Heritage and Nongame Research Program. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul.
- Nelson, P. 2005. The terrestrial natural communities of Missouri. Third edition. Missouri Natural Areas Committee, Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, MO. 550 pp.
- PRISM Climate Group. 2014. 30-year normals. Northwest Alliance for Computational Science & Engineering (NACSE), Oregon State University, Corvallis. [http://prism.nacse.org/normals/] (accessed April 2014).
- Ricketts, T. H., E. Dinerstein, D. M. Olson, C. J. Loucks, and W. Eichbaum. 1999. Terrestrial ecoregions of North America: A conservation assessment. Island Press, Washington, DC. 485 pp.
- Risser, P. 1990. Landscape processes and the vegetation of the North American grassland. Pages 133-146 in: S. L. Collins and L. L. Wallace, editors. Fire in the North American tallgrass prairies. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 175 pp.
- Shiflet, T. N., editor. 1994. Rangeland cover types of the United States. Society for Range Management. Denver, CO. 152 pp.
- Taft, J. B. 1995. Ecology, distribution, and rareness patterns of threatened and endangered prairie plants in Illinois. Pages 21-31 in: T. E. Rice, editor. Proceedings of the fourth Central Illinois Prairie Conference. Milliken University, Decatur, IL.
- Taft, J. B., and J. O. Dawson. 2011. Evidence for community structuring associated with the actinorhizal shrub Ceanothus americanus in tallgrass prairies in Illinois, USA. Functional Plant Biology 38:711-719.
- Taft, J. B., and Z. P. Kron. . Evidence of species and functional group attrition in shrub-encroached prairie: Implications for restoration. American Midland Naturalist. [in press]
- Weaver, J. E., and T. J. Fitzpatrick. 1934. The prairie. Ecological Monographs 4(2):142-177.
- Woodward, S. 2008. Grassland biomes. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
- Wright, H. A., and A. W. Bailey. 1982b. Fire ecology: United States and southern Canada. Wiley-Interscience Publication, John Wiley & Sons, New York. 501 pp.