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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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