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.
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.
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
Prairies and Fire
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.