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Mesic Prairie

Recently I had the pleasure of spending time with a group of volunteers (thank you, volunteers!) on the Gibraltar Segment between the Merrimac Ferry Wayside and the Slack Road trailhead. Specifically, we were working in the area by the big bench as part of the Lodi Valley Chapter’s scheduled monthly maintenance day.  Our task was to use loppers to cut down invasive sumac that was threatening to take over the mesic prairie that is in the area. (The photo shows the Trail lined with sumac.)  Spending time on the prairie led me to want to do more research to learn about mesic prairies. The more I learned, the more I realized that this is yet another gem that we have here in the Lodi Valley.

A mesic prairie grows in an area that has a moderate amount of moisture and full sun, with less than ten percent tree canopy. Sometimes called a tallgrass prairie, these prairies are rare today because they have deep, rich soils built by the extensive root systems of the prairie plants which makes them desirable for cropland. How rare are they, you may ask? According to the WI DNR website, at the time of European settlement (mid 1600s) there were over 800,000 acres of mesic prairie in southern Wisconsin and now there is less than 100 acres. And here’s the exciting news: This Gibraltar Segment has 8 of those acres! 

Mesic prairies typically have a variety of tall grasses, with the dominant grass being big bluestem. They also tend to have flowering plants such as spurge, bee balm, prairie coneflower, lead plant, asters, rattlesnake master, and spiderwort. A few years ago a “bioblitz” was carried out on the mesic prairie of the Gibraltar Segment in order to identify all the living species within this area. This effort led to the identification of more than 50 native prairie plants.

Mesic prairies are fire dependent, meaning that they rely on frequent controlled burning to insure their continued existence.  When that doesn’t happen they are invaded by trees and shrubs and, in time, become forests.  During this chapter maintenance day the volunteers cut down the sumac that was invading the mesic prairie and shading out the native plants that are looking for the sun. Some people may say the sumac, with its bright berries, is pretty and should be left alone. I would offer that sumac is like the weeds in your garden which may actually be attractive but which are growing in the wrong place and threatening the growth of things that you’d like to see there. It’s the same with the sumac growing in the mesic prairie.

The volunteers who showed up for this maintenance day probably didn’t know that they were going to be playing a role in preserving a rare mesic prairie. There’s much more to be done but we made a difference during the time we were out there. Next time you’re on this Gibraltar Segment I hope you’ll look at this area of the Trail in a whole new light and appreciate it as one of the many special places that are to be found….Along the Ice Age Trail.

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