Story and photos by Tom Hodgson
The spring wildflower season is behind us, but summer blossoms are on display. From now until frost, our native prairies are ablaze with color. Thanks to the efforts of the Michigan DNR and the Michigan Audubon Society, there are several local restored prairie sites we can enjoy.
Prior to the arrival of European settlers, much of Michigan was covered by forests, deciduous hardwoods in the south and pines in the north. But there were exceptions. Much of the southern three tiers of counties, including Jackson and Washtenaw, were home to transitional prairie communities that lay between the true open prairies of plains and the forests of the Midwest. These sites were dominated by grasses, but also included scattered oaks and shrubs. The invading forests were kept at bay by frequent wildfires, some started by lightning, and others intentionally set by Native Americans.
These prairie sites were rich in plant species. Native grasses, including big and little bluestem and Indian grass grew 7 to 9 feet tall. Hundreds of species of wildflowers also occurred in a variety of colors and sizes. Many species of birds and other wildlife adapted to grassland habitats thrived there as well.
When the settlers arrived, they found these prairie sites perfect for farming. Little clearing or site preparation was required, and their deep, rich soils were ideal for crops. As a result, 98 percent of these native prairie sites were quickly converted to farmland, or were invaded by forests as a greater emphasis was placed on the suppression of wildfires.
Today, most native prairie plants are confined to railroad rights of way where sparks from passing trains still ignite enough fires to suppress tree and shrub growth. Fortunately, the Michigan DNR and other conservation organizations are recognizing the value of these grassland communities and are beginning to restore them.
Several such sites are now established in and around the Waterloo Recreation Area. A small demonstration prairie is located at the Discovery Center and is easily accessible from the lower parking lot.
A much larger site is located on state land on Reithmiller Road across from the Lutheran Church and includes a small parking lot and a rudimentary access trail. From the town of Waterloo take Waterloo-Munith Road to Reithmiller Road and turn left.
A third site is located at the northeast corner of the intersection of Mt. Hope and Glenn Roads. No parking or trails are available.
Additional sites totaling nearly 50 acres have been developed by the Michigan Audubon Society at the Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Sanctuary on Seymour Road, about 1.5 miles west of the Race Road intersection. The sanctuary includes parking, and well-groomed trails that make enjoying the summer wildflowers easy. The trails are wide and leave plenty of room for social distancing.
Summer is the time for prairie visits, when the grasses reach maximum height, wildflowers are in full bloom, and butterflies abound.
Dragonflies (sometimes called mosquito hawks) can also be seen cruising these prairie sites in search of insects. A native prairie in summer is a truly magnificent sight. A photo array is included to whet your appetite, and a PDF “Prairie Tour Map” is posted below the photo gallery at the end of the article that you can download and take with you. Enjoy.Prairie Tour Map-2