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Grasslands are important habitats for a diverse group of plants and animals adapted to very sunny and sometimes dry conditions.


Grassland Basics

A grassland is any area that is dominated by grasses. A grass is a plant with very, very long, and very, very narrow leaves. The leaves grow from their base, down near the ground, instead of from their edges or tips like trees, bushes, and other broad leaved plants. This means the leaves continue to grow even when they are chewed off by bison or cows, or mowed for hay, or when a fire burns their tops off. Grasses also have very, very small flowers. They are so small that most people don't even realize they have flowers. They are wind pollinated, so they don't need big showy flowers to attract pollinators.

Grasslands thrive where there is too much rain for desert conditions, but too little rain for trees to grow. There are also grasslands where there is enough rain for trees, but there is some other force, like regular fires, or shallow soils, that prevent trees from getting started, or putting down deep roots.

In Missouri, there are many places where grasses and trees grow together, because the conditions are just between what grasses need and what trees need. If there are a few scattered trees, the grassland is called a savanna. If there enough trees so that about half the sky is blocked by their leaves when you look up, it is called a woodland.

One reason grasslands are so common on the plains, where the land is flat, is that on flat areas it is easier for a fire to sweep across the landscape. Fires like to climb uphill, but they have a hard time burning downhill. So, you usually find more trees in places that are hilly, because the downhill parts slow fire down.

Prairies are grasslands whose soil has never been disturbed by plowing. This is important because prairies are not just living systems above ground, they are living systems below ground. The roots of a big bluestem can reach 5 to 7 feet into the soil, though why grasses do is still a bit of a mystery (it's not for water). As prairie plants grow over time, they create and accumulate soil around their roots. Over thousands of years they can build layers of soil many feet deep.

While grasslands are dominated by grasses, they also have lots of broad-leaved plants that do have showy flowers. A healthy grassland can make a beautiful show of plant life all through the spring, summer, and fall.