Prairies of the Past

The American Prairie is an iconic landscape that evokes images of rolling hills covered in wind whipped seas of grass, herds of buffalo, covered wagons and sod houses.  The Great Plains of the Midwest are synonymous with prairies, and though the Midwest has the most famous American grasslands, there is strong historical and ecological evidence that the Southeast was covered in a rich mosaic of grasslands and forests prior to European colonization.  There is an often repeated tale of a pre-contact squirrel being able to travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground on account of the densely forested landscape. I remember hearing it as a child in the 1980’s, and it continues to spread to this day.  This idea of the all-encompassing primeval climax forest was disseminated sometime in the early 20th century.  It’s based on the relatively recent observation of forest succession occurring on open lands that are devoid of the prehistoric natural controls that keep forests in check and allow grasslands to flourish.  This assumption that all land will become forest given enough time is overly simplistic, and does not take into account the reality of the natural processes that select which plants can thrive in a given landscape.  It also ignores the numerous historical writings of early explorers that encountered large areas of naturally occurring grasslands in the Southeast during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Coastal marsh grassland













To see how the landscape has changed, let’s take a trip back through history.  One hundred and twenty two years ago in 1897, Historian Dr. John Landrum wrote:

 “Up to the breaking out of the revolutionary war, the woodlands in the upper portion of South Carolina were carpeted with grass, and the wild pea vine grew, it is said, as high as a horse’s back, while flowers of every description were seen growing all around. The forests were imposing, the trees were large and stood so wide apart that a deer or buffalo could be seen at a long distance; the grasses and the pea vines occupied the place of the young, scrubby growth of the present day.” …”It is a fact well authenticated, that in the early history of the upper country there were numerous prairies covered only with the grasses and the pea vine, but which have since been covered with pine, oak, and other growth.” [History, 2]

Just before the Revolutionary War, another 122 years into the past in 1775, Botanist William Bartram was exploring and collecting specimens in what is now the state of Georgia.  In his journals, he recorded travelling through many open grasslands.  Near present day Clyo, Ga. after naming many trees and shrubs in a riverine forest he wrote:

“This ancient sublime forest is frequently intersected with extensive avenues, vistas and green lawns, opening to extensive savannas” [Travels, 309]

Near present day Sparta, Ga.:

“There is some very good land on the gradual descents of the ridges and their bottoms bordering on creeks, and very extensive grassy savannas and cane meadows always in view on one hand or the other.” [Travels, 379]

Near present day Clayton, Ga.:

“I observed growing in great abundance in these mountain meadows Sanguisorba canadensis and Heracleum maximum…..the swelling bases of the surrounding hills fronting the meadows present, for my acceptance, the fragrant red strawberry, in painted beds in many acres surface, indeed I may safely say hundreds.” [Travels, 344]

If we go another 75 years back to 1700, Explorer and naturalist John Lawson, travelling near present day Columbia, SC noted:

“we pass’d by several fair Savanna’s, very rich and dry; seeing great Copses of many Acres that bore nothing but Bushes, about the Bigness of Box-trees; which (in the Season) afford great Quantities of small Black-berries, very pleasant Fruit, and much like to our Blues, or Huckle-berries, that grow on the Heaths in England.” [Voyage, 27]

And near present day Asheboro, NC:

“We travell’d, this day, about 25 Miles, over pleasant Savanna Ground, high, and dry, having very few trees upon it, and those standing at a great distance. The Land was very good, and free from shrubs and underwood.”  [Voyage, 45]

Pine Savanna in the Coastal Plain

These historical descriptions use words like savannas, prairies, meadows, and cane breaks, but they are all talking about grasslands.  Grasslands encompass a spectrum of landscapes that share the common defining characteristic of a ground layer of vegetation dominated by grasses and other graminoids (such as sedges, rushes, or canes).  Types of grasslands include: savannas, balds, dunes, glades, meadows, marshes, barrens, bogs, fens, and even some woodlands as long as the tree canopy is sparse and grasses are the dominant type of vegetation.  (Thanks to Southeastern Grasslands Initiative for the definition and types). Historical descriptions and land surveys give us an idea of what the landscape looked like in precolonial days and grasslands were very much a part of it.  Since then, the absence of fire and large herds of grazing animals have contributed to the decline of grasslands and allowed successional forests to creep into areas where they previously could not have survived.

Large herds of animals were one of the first casualties of colonial settlement.  Furs were a major means of barter for many settlers, and game was abundant.  Historian Dr. David Ramsay wrote in 1858: 

“In the year 1750 when the settlement of the upper country [of South Carolina] began, there were so many buffalos, which have long since disappeared, that three or four men with their dogs could kill from ten to twenty in a day.”…”The waters abounded with beavers, otters and muskrats. Twenty beavers have been caught by one man in one season on Fairforest.” [History, 305]

 Bison and beavers are both major controls to the spread of woody plants.   Bison graze on grasses, but unlike domestic cattle they can also digest cellulose, so they will eat entire tree seedlings and the bark off of larger trees all the way around the trunk, which will cause the trees to die. Herds of bison churn large swaths ground as they graze and seasonally migrate and fast growing grasses are the first to colonize their wake.  Beavers not only prevent the spread of trees, but actively reduce their range by felling them and flooding large areas so the soils are too wet for trees to survive.  The edges of a beaver pond are ideal habitat for many grasses and forbs.   After a dam is abandoned and breaks down, the large open area that was behind it with newly enriched soils often becomes a meadow.  The pelts of bison and beavers were major exports from the colonies to Europe and their drastic reduction in numbers or outright removal from the Southern landscape had far reaching effects on the plant communities adapted to open, disturbed areas.

Broom Sedge (Andropogon virginicus) just waiting to burn.











Fire is the other main check to forest succession that was slowly removed from the landscape as it was settled by more and more people.   Fire is a naturally occurring phenomenon that has affected plant growth, survival, and adaptation as much as soil pH, precipitation, and faunal predation.  The climate of the southeast with frequent thunderstorms and some of the highest occurrence of lightning strikes per square mile in the world ensures that fire will enter the landscape sooner or later.  While the Native Americans were known to have set fires to clear land and to flush game they were simply facilitating a natural process that had been occurring for millennia. Native Americans were not the creators of grasslands or other fire dependent ecosystems, even if their actions may have helped them thrive and expand in the centuries prior to European contact.  Frequent fires became less common through the 18th and 19th centuries.  After the Civil War many Northerners bought Southern lands and brought their ideas of fire suppression from the urbanized areas and fire sensitive forests of the Northeast down South. Federal and State owned lands were focused almost solely on timber production and fires were all but excluded from the landscape.  Trees that aren’t adapted to cope with fire will quickly take over an open sunny area if fire and other controls are removed from the equation.  This process of forest succession is what led many scientists to believe that forest is the climax habitat of the southeast and led to the creation of the myth of the travelling squirrel.  The very idea of naturally occurring Southern grasslands slowly faded into obscurity.

Prairie restoration area at Panola Mountain State Park

In summary, there once were prairies and other grasslands all over the South, but they have almost disappeared due to habitat loss and lack of forest controls.  Not all is lost, however, as small pockets of grassland survived in highway right of ways, pastureland, power line corridors, and other areas where  people controlled the spread of trees and shrubs with mowing or grazing animals. In the latter half of the 20th century, prescribed burns were recognized as necessary for the creation of habitat for quail and other game animals and fire was slowly reintroduced to the landscape. Further studies have documented the numerous plants and animals that benefit from prescribed fire and led to its widespread acceptance as a tool for conservation.  Today, numerous organizations and land managers are working to rehab, restore, and even create new grasslands.  We will be profiling a few of these projects and land managers in upcoming posts, so check back for more information about Piedmont Prairies and the plants that call them home.

Prairie restoration planting in a power line cut at CRNRA.











Works Consulted


Works Cited


Bartram, the First Family of American Botany

When we at Beech Hollow describe our operation as a ‘Native Plant Nursery’ it often prompts the question “How do you know/determine what is native?”  The full answer is a long-winded description of the plants and animals of a given habitat co-evolving over the millennia to form complex interdependent ecosystems, but a quick way to say it is “Natives are the plants that were growing on this continent before Europeans showed up.” That is a bit of an oversimplification, as there is archaeological evidence and some historical accounts of Native Americans having vast trade networks across the continent that facilitated the movement of goods and food plants such as maize and sunflowers as far back as 1000 B.C.

The ‘discovery’ of the Americas and subsequent exploration, colonization and modernization of the past 500 years has had dramatic effects on the landscape to say the least.  Plants from Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America are now commonly found all over North America.  Some require great care to sustain here like the tropical orchids blooming in the hothouse at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens on a cold February day, and some, like Chinese Privet, are running wild throughout the land.  By studying historical sources from the beginnings of this era of intercontinental plant exchange we can get an idea of the plant communities that were here before this land was named ‘America.’


Azaleas were highly sought after by European gardeners

Descriptions and plant specimens coming back from the New World excited Europeans and created a huge demand for new and interesting plants.  Explorers looking for gold were often disappointed in that pursuit, but found instead an entirely new set of crops being grown by the indigenous peoples and forests full of exotic trees and flowering shrubs.  There were no potatoes in Ireland, no tomatoes in Italy, no sunflowers in Russia, and no maize, vanilla, or tobacco in anywhere in Europe before transatlantic ships established regular trade routes in the 1600s.  Colonists began to populate the Eastern seaboard of North America in significant numbers through the late 1600s and in one of those colonies, Pennsylvania, resided a family named ‘Bartram.’ Through the travels, writings, plant specimen collections, and drawings produced by several generations of this family we have very rich descriptions of the plants and animals of Eastern North America as they were in their near primeval state.


Mountain Laurel is still a huge hit in Europe

John Bartram (1699-1777) was a third generation Pennsylvania Quaker who has been called the “Father of American Botany” and was one of the first practicing Linnaean botanists in North America.  Linnaeus himself said that Bartram was “greatest natural botanist in the world.”  He established the first proper botanical garden in North America just outside of Philadelphia, and you can still visit it to this day to learn about the plants he collected and propagated.  “Bartram Boxes” were crates he packed with hundreds of varieties of seeds that helped to establish his thriving plant export business and provided the British elite with novel plants to populate their gardens.  Bartram traveled extensively in search of new plants and through his notes and diaries we are able to get an idea of the diverse communities of plants that were thriving on the continent in the mid-eighteenth century.  John Bartram was also good friends with Benjamin Franklin, and may have planted the idea in his head for the American Philosophical Society. At the very least he was a founding member and helped shape the ideas of the burgeoning revolution.

William Bartram (1739-1823) was the third son of John, and went on to follow in his father’s footsteps by exploring the American Southeast and writing of its natural wonders while collecting and classifying the plants he encountered.  His writings about his journeys through what are now North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana from 1773-1777 were compiled by Francis Harper in “The Travels of William Bartram.”  Bartram’s often poetic descriptions and Harper’s detailed annotations with modern place and plant names that accompany them provide a vivid and verdant picture of the places he went and the plants, animals, and humans he encountered.

I’ve been reading his writings off and on for the past few years, and aside from the descriptions of 15 foot long alligators trying to sink his canoe in Lake George near what is now Orlando, there is one passage that really sticks with me.  It describes a forest northwest of Augusta, near the present day site of Beech Hollow Farm. First, a picture:IMG_5522

This is one of the biggest trees in the Beech grove here.  The tape is at 24″, so let’s call it 26 inches in diameter just for a reference while you read the following passage from William Bartram:

“…We entered an extensive fertile plain, bordering on the river and shaded by trees of vast growth, which at once spoke of its fertility.  Continuing some time through these shady groves, the scene opens, and discloses to view the most magnificent forest I had ever seen. We rise gradually a sloping bank of about twenty or thirty feet elevation and immediately entered this sublime forest; the ground is perfectly a level green plain, thinly planted by nature with the most stately forest trees, such as the gigantic Black Oak (Q. tinctora), Liriodendron, Juglans nigra, Planatus, Juglans exalta, Fagus sylvatica, Ulmus sylvatica, Liquid-amber styraciflua**, whose mighty trunks, seemingly of an equal height, appeared like superb columns.  To keep within the bounds of truth and reality, in describing the magnitude and grandeur of these trees, would I fear, fail of credibility; yet, I  think I can assert that many of the black oaks measured eight, nine, ten, and eleven feet diameter five feet above the ground, as we measured several that were thirty feet girt, and from hence they ascend perfectly straight, with a gradual taper, forty or fifty feet to the limbs…” (“Travels”, p.  24)

**(Black Oak, Tulip Poplar, Black Walnut, Sycamore, Shagbark Hickory, Beech, Elm, Sweet Gum)

So, his low estimate on the Oaks is 4 times the diameter of our biggest Beech.  In case you have trouble visualizing that I can help through the miracle of digital photo manipulation:









And he didn’t say he saw just one magnificent giant tree.  It’s an entire forest. And he even has to qualify his description and then basically says he’s low-balling it because you wouldn’t believe the actual truth.  Like I said, it sticks with me as an idealistic goal when thinking about conservation and restoration.

What did this land look like 240 years ago? What will it look like 240 years from now?bartram