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Gems of Arkansas Series, Part III: The Tallgrass Prairies

Field of yellow flowers with black centers

This blog series is inspired by the exhibition: Cross Pollination: Martin Johnson Heade, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and Our Contemporary Moment. Inspired by the museum’s beloved collection of Martin Johnson Heade’s Gems of Brazil, this interdisciplinary exhibition draws connections and comparisons between artists who all share an intense appreciation for the systems of nature but present it from very different perspectives. From large paintings of vast landscapes to work that shows the miniscule details of shimmering wings, guests will undoubtedly draw connections between the “fragile web of relationships that sustain our environment.” It is in this spirit that we are pleased to present Gems of Arkansas, an environmental journey exploring the places, animals, and, of course, gems, that make Arkansas such a unique place.


Imagine being immersed in a sunny field of swaying, green grasses that dance in the wind with pastel-colored flowers. In a perfect balance of nature, pollinators gather nectar and pollen, birds nibble on plentiful seeds, and animals scuttle along the earth below your feet. Such harmony only comes from thousands of years of nature’s evolution and surely fits the definition of the word gem as “something prized especially for great beauty or perfection.”

The tallgrass prairies of the southeastern United States (including those found in Arkansas) undoubtedly can be classified as gems, and rare gems at that. Prairies are a sub-category of grasslands, places that are rich in biodiversity of animals, insects, and plants. Often over-shadowed by their Midwestern cousins, the grasslands in the Southeast US are home to one-third of all rare southeastern land vertebrates and two-thirds of rare plants. More specifically, tallgrass prairie habitats reduce erosion, sequester carbon, and produce critical food sources for animals, insects, and birds. For thousands of years, they have been important to Indigenous people, providing habitat for game animals, plants for gathering food, and building materials.

By definition, a prairie is a type of habitat that is dominated by herbaceous plants (plants without woody stems). Most people recognize this in the form of grasses like little bluestem, switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indiangrass. But tallgrass prairies are also hosts to a variety of flowering plants like purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, penstamon, and blazing star. The rich soils in many prairies provide for these plants, allowing a layering of root zones to occur. In fact, many species of prairie plants have co-evolved together so that each plant takes advantage of a specific depth of soil for the needs of its roots. There are some prairie plants whose roots can dive down to 12 feet deep! These active root systems minimize erosion and clean water as it recharges the water table. Fire has also played a major role in keeping these habitats pristine. Since the majority of biological functions of prairie plants happen underground in their root systems, when fire sweeps through, they are able to readily recover. This is not the case with most trees and shrubs, so fire in these habitats prevent larger species of plants from overtaking tallgrass prairie species.

Historically, the landscape of Arkansas included more than 700,000 acres of tallgrass prairie. Today, less than 0.5 percent of that exists. Agriculture and land development pressures dating back to the early 1900s has almost decimated this unique ecosystem within the state. A prime example of this can be found in the Mississippi River Delta area of eastern Arkansas. Once home to 320,000 acres of tallgrass prairie, the Grand Prairie of Arkansas is a shadow of what it once was, consisting today of 430 acres dispersed in pockets in the region. The largest area is only 50 acres in size.

close-up of flowers found in baker prairie in Arkansas
Baker Prairie. Courtesy of Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission.

The Grand Prairie is a uniquely moist environment compared to many prairies, receiving up to 50 inches of rain per year. But its hardpan soil layer makes it difficult for agriculture, so early settlers initially used it for cattle grazing and hay production. Eventually, the hardpan surface was used to the advantage of the humans living there once they realized these areas could be flooded and used for rice production. By 1915, over 100,000 acres were being used for this and by 1930, almost all the original tallgrass prairie had been destroyed.

This extreme loss of natural habitat has had devastating effects. 28 plant “species of concern” currently inhabit the Grand Prairie. “Species of concern” means that numbers are significantly dwindling, but not enough information exists to place them on the Endangered Species list. Plants in this category include what could be considered Arkansas’s most rare plant, a flowering shrub called Stern’s medlar, which to date has not been found anywhere else in the world. Prairie evening primrose is another plant confined to this area and other rare plants include downy gentian and slender marsh pink which has not been seen here since 1941. Thirty species of animals who call Grand Prairie home are now considered species of concern, including the ornate box turtle which has not been seen in the Grand Prairie for 30 years. The greater prairie chicken has not been seen since 1938.

The story remains the same throughout the state. Baker Prairie, located in the town of Harrison in Boone County, was once home to a 5,000 acre tallgrass prairie. Today, it consists of 71 acres, making it the largest intact prairie in the Ozark region. Tallgrass prairie preserves can be even be found closer to home in Benton County at the Chesney Prairie Natural Area in Siloam Springs and Searless Prairie Natural Area located in Rogers.

Conservation efforts are underway in Arkansas, both to protect what is left and to restore what was removed. Seed collecting of existing prairie plants remains an important part of the restoration efforts, allowing a continuum of plants to exist. Partnerships with private landowners continue to be an important piece of the puzzle, allowing for an integrated approach to restoration and preservation between environmental groups and government.

curved nature trail with green leafed trees and blooming flowers

Individual homeowners can make a difference, too! Try planting tallgrass prairie plants in your own yards to encourage a diversity of pollinator and insect habitat. On the grounds of Crystal Bridges, we have several of these plant species including little blue stem, black-eyed Susan, penstamon, and butterfly weed. Let these plants spark a conversation between you and your neighbors about the importance of preserving and restoring our native tallgrass prairies.

Written by Samantha Best, outdoor interpretation specialist.


Read more from the Gems of Arkansas Series: 

Part I: Let’s Talk Diamonds

Part II: The Ozark Hellbender Salamander

Part IV: The Ozark Big-Eared Bat


Cover image: Black-eyed Susan