Restored tallgrass prairie at Dubuque Arboretum
Restored tallgrass prairie at Dubuque Arboretum

A symphony of colors and textures, delicate vertical lines broken by the leaves of thistles and the buds and blooms of flowers like swamp milkweed, purple prairie clover, and coreopsis. At the Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, their tallgrass prairie habitat – one tiny corner of the 56-acre complex – held our attention more strongly than all of the other attractions the gardens had to offer. Coming from a state where our natural habitats are under perpetual attack, we wanted to know what it was like to stand in an Iowa prairie.

Coneflower
Coneflower easily catches your attention

Iowa’s primary habitat was once prairie, covering rolling hills as far as the eye could see. It was an easy land for settlers to convert to agriculture, and they did. Today, driving through rural Iowa means a looking over panoramas of waving fields of corn.

Typical Iowa view
Typical Iowa view: corn and more corn, in Guttenburg

It wasn’t always this way. But sadly, there is very little prairie left in Iowa. According to the nonprofit Iowa Prairie Network, less than 0.1% of Iowa’s original prairie remains. That’s a far smaller figure than our remaining longleaf pine habitat in the Southeast. And that’s since the mid-1800s.

Trail through restored Iowa prairie
Trail through restored Iowa prairie at the Dubuque Arboretum

Prairie wildflowers are at their peak in the summertime. The habitat is full of small details, from the amazing variety of wildflowers and grasses to the creatures that live amid this dense living web, from honeybees to rabbits.

Butterfly milkweed in Iowa prairie
Butterfly milkweed attracts bees, too
Coreopsis in bloom amid the prairie grasses
Coreopsis in bloom amid the prairie grasses

Our tiny taste of a tallgrass prairie at the Dubuque Arboretum left us wanting to learn more, but our time did not permit us more exploration in the area. In Dubuque County’s system of natural lands, notable relict and restored prairies include the Pohlman Prairie Preserve south of Durango, the Interstate Power Forest Preserve southeast of downtown Dubuque, and the eastern portion of Mines of Spain State Recreation Area.

Tall grass prairie at Mines of Spain
A much larger prairie habitat at Mines of Spain. We visited here two years ago.

Working to preserve prairie heritage in Iowa, the Iowa Prairie Network provides information on the prairie ecosystem, including where you can find more remnants of prairie, whether restored – like the one we walked through – or relict remains of the original prairie.

Learn more about the Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens