Grasslands 101

A trail leading up to the grassland restoration site.

Grasslands are open areas that are typically made up of grasses and flowering plants, with mature trees making up a small amount of the total plant cover (usually less than 10 percent). Meadows and tallgrass prairies are two different types of grasslands historically found throughout southwestern Ontario and within the Credit Valley Watershed.

Prairie vs. Meadow- What’s the difference?

Tallgrass prairies are a historical community of southwestern Ontario. Once covering almost 1000 km2, changes in land use for agriculture and urbanization have decreased native tallgrass coverage to less than 3 percent of its original extent. They are typically made up of a 50:50 mix of wildflowers and grasses. Tallgrass prairies are often found on sandy, dry, nutrient poor soils and are maintained by periodic burning. Plant species that make up this ecosystem have deep roots (up to 4 meters!) that allow them to absorb water and nutrients in poor growing conditions, as well as regrow after a fire.

While meadows are also open ecological communities made up of grasses and wildflowers, they occur across a broader range of environmental conditions. They can be found in wet or dry areas and may contain both native and non-native species. They typically grow on more nutrient rich soils than tallgrass prairies and commonly contain well recognized species such as asters and goldenrods.  Some meadows established naturally while others were formed through human activity as forested areas were logged to provide space for agriculture and urban expansion. They are maintained by grazing of animals, floods, and drought. In some areas, meadows form a “stepping stone” community between disturbed open fields and developing forests as improving soil conditions and increased shade promote the growth of woody species.

Why are they important?

Prairies and meadows provide a number of ecological services such as:

  • Improving the quality of air, soil, and water
  • Reducing erosion
  • Providing nectar and warm sunny places for pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies to feed
  • Creating nesting habitat and shelter for ground nesting birds, snakes, and small mammals
  • Creating habitat linkages between forested areas for wildlife
  • They can be home to rare species of plants, animals, and insects that are not found in any other community type
  • ‘Tallgrass’ communities with their long root systems can sequester more carbon within a short time frame then even a new forest planting! Forests sequester more carbon over a longer time frame.
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