Boerne Chapter

Prairies — more than grass on flat land

Author: Bill Ward

A couple of years ago, Kathy and I were fortunate to be on a field trip that visited Burleson Prairie, a several-hundred-acre restoration project on the Blackland Prairie near Temple. Being fairly naïve about prairies, we were surprised by such a large variety of native plants, both grasses and forbs, on the Burleson Prairie.

Image of person standing in tall, brown prairie grass
Bob Burleson leading a field trip on his prairie near Temple. (Photo by Bill Ward)

On that particular visit, the proprietors of the prairie were as fascinating as the vegetation. Bob and Mickey Burleson told how they had resurrected this tall-grass prairie from old cotton fields. For many years they studied the small remnants of native prairies in surrounding counties, and they brought seeds from those prairies to plant on their own land. Little by little they created the now-famous Burleson Prairie, a living example of what must have covered much of the Blackland Prairie before most it was turned into the bread basket of Texas.

Bob Burleson died last April after a life of major contributions to conservation efforts in Texas. Among many, many other accomplishments, he was involved in the creation of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, helped found the Native Prairie Association of Texas, served as a member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, and was a leader in establishing TPWD’s Natural Resources Division. He and his wife coauthored a guide to tallgrass restoration, “The New Southern Reconstruction: Home Grown Prairies.”

Small purple wildfowers mixed in with native grasses
Sand palafoxia on the Burleson Prairie. (Photo by Bill Ward)

We saw their prairie in the fall, at the height of the grass blooms, but also when many wildflowers were flowering. The Burlesons had not only restored the grasses, but also had planted seed from the forbs they found growing on the various prairie remnants. Among the flowering plants were sand palafoxia, a large white gaura, rosinweed, ruellia, purple horsemint, lanceleaf gaillardia, and many others. Burleson Prairie wildflowers must be even more spectacular during the spring.

Last June we got to visit a prairie at a time many forbs were in late-spring bloom. This was on a field trip to Attwater Prairie in Colorado County, led by Jason Singhurst of TPWD. That coastal-plain prairie also has an impressive diversity of grasses and forbs.

A close up of a bright yellow flower
Winkler’s gaillardia on the Attwater Prairie. (Photo by Bill Ward)

Just a few of the forbs blooming were phlox, pink gaura, blazing star, ruellia, Winkler’s gaillardia, black-eyed Susan, milkweed, coneflower, white horsemint, and purple pleat-leaf. Changes in wildflower color patterns across the prairie reflect subtle changes in soil and topography, both related to underlying geology.

Last month, during the Native Plant Society of Texas annual symposium, we saw that the shorter-grass prairies of the Rolling Plains south of Wichita Falls are just as diverse as the Blackland Prairie and Gulf coastal plain grasslands.

A good place to see a local remnant of a tallgrass prairie is at Cibolo Nature Center. All of the “big four” of tallgrass prairies, Switchgrass, little bluestem, yellow Indiangrass, and big bluestem grow at CNC.

My favorites in the CNC prairie are eastern gamagrass and the Central Texas endemic Lindheimer muhly. Another favorite of just about everyone is bushy bluestem, which grows on the damper margins of the prairie.

As in all healthy native prairies, the large species diversity on the CNC prairie includes many different forbs. This prairie has a variety of colorful wildflowers, both in the spring and the fall. No plants have been introduced into the prairie at CNC; all grow there naturally.

Of course, this wide diversity of native plants on prairies supports a big variety of insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, and other animals. Prairies are teeming with life!

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About the Region

New Braunfels, the location of our Fall 2024 Symposium, straddles both the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion. Interstate 35 divides the city of New Braunfels; its path through the city closely parallels the boundary of these two ecoregions, with the Edwards Plateau on the west side and the Blackland Prairies region to the east. The Edwards Plateau area is also called the Hill Country; however, this general term covers a much larger area extending farther north. Spring-fed creeks are found throughout the region; deep limestone canyons, rivers, and lakes (reservoirs) are common. Ashe juniper is perhaps the most common woody species found throughout the region. Additional woody species include various species of oak, with live oak (Quercus fusiformis) being the most common. Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) border waterways. This area is well known for its spring wildflower displays, though they may be viewed in spring, late summer, and fall, as well. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, average annual rainfall in the Edwards Plateau ranges from 15 to 34 inches.

The Blackland Prairie extends from the Red River south to San Antonio, bordered on the west by the Edwards Plateau and the Cross Timbers, and on the east by the Post Oak Savannah. Annual rainfall averages 30 to 40 inches, with higher averages to the east. This region is dominated by prairie species. The most common grass species include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the uplands and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in the riparian areas and drainages. Common herbaceous flowering plants include salvias, penstemons, and silphiums. This area has suffered greatly from overgrazing and agricultural use. Few intact areas remain, though many of the plants can be found along county roadsides throughout the region.

Our four host chapters (New Braunfels, Lindheimer, Guadalupe, and the Hill Country chapters) are located in one or both of the ecoregions above. However, the eastern portion of Guadalupe County also falls within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion. Annual rainfall averages 35 to 45 inches, with higher averages to the east. A wide variety of hardwood trees are found, including several species of oaks, elms, and in the Bastrop area, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Grasses and forbs dominate in the open savannas, with most common grass being little bluestem. Ranching, agriculture, and fire suppression have allowed woody species to encroach on the once-open savannas.

Source: Wildflowers of Texas by Michael Eason