Butler Prairie 

The Butler University Prairie was established in 1987 by the Holcomb Research Institute and Butler University. Located between the Indianapolis Water Company Canal and the White River, the prairie serves as an outdoor laboratory for Butler ecology courses, as a public educational resource, and as a natural area for birds and wildlife. A flier describing the prairie, including flowering dates of its species, is available. For information, contact Dr. Rebecca Dolan, director of the Friesner Herbarium, at 317-940-9413 or rdolan@butler.edu.



yellow coneflowermilkweed podsbee balmspiderwort











What is a Prairie?

A prairie is a native plant community dominated by grasses. Other non-woody flowering plants called "forbs" also grow in prairies. Prairies originally covered a large area of North America, forming a triangle that stretched from Saskatchewan to Texas and eastward to central Ohio. In the west, prairies are dominated by short grasses only a few feet tall, while in the Midwest the tallgrass prairies are dominated by grasses that may reach nine feet. Because most prairies have deep, rich soil, vast areas of prairie have been converted to agricultural land.

compass plant

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)

Indiana Prairies

At one time prairies covered 15 percent of Indiana, mainly in the west central and northwest portion of the state. Less than 1 percent of this area remains, with the rest of the prairie lost to development or agriculture. While a few large prairies in Indiana have been preserved, most of those remaining are small remnants found in areas left unplowed or undeveloped, as within cemeteries or along railroad tracks.

Prairies are divided into different types based on the amount of soil moisture available to the plants. Dry, mesic (or "medium"), and wet prairies all occur in Indiana. Each of these prairie types has its own group of plant species adapted to those particular moisture conditions.

yellow coneflowers

Yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) in background 

Prairies and Fire

Old fields no longer under cultivation eventually become covered by herbs, shrubs, and finally by forest. This is the process of "succession," or the change over time of the plant communities occupying a site. Given that Indiana has a moist climate suitable for forest, why is it that Indiana prairies do not eventually succeed into forests? The answer is fire.

The Role of Fire

Before European settlement, autumn and spring fires set both by lightning and native Americans raced through prairies. Such fires kill most trees, bu not the grasses and forbs. Prairie plants are not killed by fires because they store food in their massive root systems each autumn, and so survive even though all the above-ground parts burn. Most prairie plants have root systems twice as deep as the stem is tall - impressive when you consider that some of these grasses are nine feet tall! 

After European settlement, fire frequencies were reduced, allowing trees to invade grasslands in many eastern parts of the prairie region. Many woody species have invaded the Butler prairie, including cottonwood, Siberian elm, trumpet creeper, box elder, and elderberry. In order to keep Butler prairie from becoming "Butler Forest" it will be burned each year when conditions permit careful control of the fire.



prairie burn

Beginning of the Prairie burn, April 2006


after the burn

After the Prairie has been burned, April 2006


The Butler Prairie

The Butler University Prairie combines elements of several different prairie types in its planting design. The west half of the prairie was sown with a mixture of tall grasses, while the east half was sown with a mix of shorter grass species. In time the forbs will spread throughout the entire prairie.

 prairie 2004

The Butler Prairie in July.




















































Above Prairie pictures provided by Marcia Moore.  Prairie map provided by Ellen Jacquart.

Dr. Erin Gerecke's class engaged in an outdoor lab in the Prairie, October 2008.


Additional Pictures of Butler Prairie plants 


Some of the species in Butler Prairie and their approximate Flowering Dates

Common Name Scientific Name Month(s) Flowering
  • Golden Alexander
  • Beardtongue
  • Cream Wild Indigo
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Flowering Spurge
  • False Sunflower
  • Prairie Coreopsis
  • Buttlerfly Weed
  • Purple Coneflower
  • Compass Plant
  • Canada Wild Rye
  • Canada Ticktrefoil
  • Yellow Coneflower
  • Purple Prairie Clover
  • White Prairie Clover
  • Prairie Dock
  • Wild Bergamont
  • Prairie Cinquefoil
  • Switchgrass
  • Prairie Blazing Star
  • Roundheaded Bush Clover
  • Naked Sunflower
  • Big Bluestem
  • False Dragonhead
  • New England Aster
  • Little Bluestem
  • Stiff Goldenrod
  • Indian Grass
  • Azure Aster
  • Heath Aster
  • Zizia aptera
  • Penstemon digitalis
  • Baptisia leucophaea
  • Rudbeckia hirta
  • Euphorbia corollata
  • Heliopsis helianthoides
  • Coreopsis palmata
  • Asclepias tuberosa
  • Echinacea purpurea
  • Silphium laciniatum
  • Elymus canadensis
  • Desmodium canadense
  • Ratibida pinnata
  • Petalostemum purpureum
  • Petalostemum canididum
  • Silphium terebinthinaceum
  • Monarda fistulosa
  • Potentilla arguta
  • Panicum virgatum
  • Liatris pycnostachya
  • Lespedesa capitata
  • Helianthus occidentalis
  • Andropogon gerardi
  • Physotegia virginiana
  • Aster novae-angliae
  • Andropogon scoparium
  • Solidago rigida
  • Sorghastrum nutans
  • Aster azureus
  • Aster ericoides
  • May - June
  • May - June
  • May - June
  • May - August
  • May - September
  • May - October
  • May - July
  • June - August
  • June - September
  • June - July
  • June - August
  • June - August
  • June - August
  • July - August
  • July - August
  • July - September
  • July - September
  • July - August
  • July - Sept
  • July - August
  • August - October
  • August - October
  • August - Sept
  • August - Sept
  • Aug - October
  • August - Sept
  • August - October
  • September
  • September - Oct
  • September - Oct


Interesting Prairie Links

Indiana Division of Nature Preserves , Department of Natural Resources - Information about Indiana Prairies and the Nature Preserves dedicated to preserving them.

Minong Prairie - Joint project between Summerfield Middle School, Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources, and the Nature Conservancy to preserve an area of prairie in lower Michigan.

Meadowbrook Prairie Restoration - Urbana Park District restored prairie in Illinois offers a glimpse of the former landscape of Illinois.

The Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois - Provides lots of information about prairies, where prairies may be found, prairie plants, and links to other prairie sites.

Grand Prairie Friends - Non-profit organization committed to preserving and restoring tall grass prairie in east-central Illinois.

Northern Prairie Biological Resources - Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center -United States Geological Survey (USGS) site listing various prairie resources.

Prairie Nursery - Nursery in Wisconsin where you can buy Prairie plants and seeds.  Also has good information about Prairies.