Just What Is A Piedmont Prairie?


            If you had the opportunity to read the October issue of Our State Magazine you may have seen several interesting articles.  First was a rare interview with TV legend Andy Griffith as he looked back at the success of my favorite TV show, The Andy Griffith Show.  Secondly, an article discussed the Pisgah Covered Bridge and the attempt being made to restore it.  The third article of interest was Jack Horanís discussion of Piedmont Prairies in North Carolina .  For me, this article was equally as interesting as hearing how Don Knotts and crew created such a time-tested classic.

            Piedmont Prairies are a landscape that evokes a beautiful mental picture.  Everyone can picture miles upon miles of tall grasses covering the gently rolling hills of Iowa and other Midwestern states.  The interesting part about the prairies discussed here is that they once occurred right under our own feet.  Montgomery County was once home to these grassy ecosystems, as was neighboring Stanly, Anson, Randolph , Cabarrus, Rowan, Union and Mecklenburg Counties .  Some counties as far north as Durham may have even contained pockets of the grasslands.  The local prairies were not as large as their Midwestern counterparts.  Many were just 25-50 acres scattered about in the midst of the remaining timber lands. 

            While much mystery still surrounds Piedmont prairies some things are for sure.  Prairies were havens for wildlife.  The mix of seeding flowers and warm-weather grasses created ideal conditions for bison to graze.  Unfortunately, wild bison no longer roam the North Carolina landscape.  Many game animals, such as quail, deer and turkey relied on the prairies for food and cover.  Neotropical migratory birds fed in these areas during their migrations.  Birds of prey, such as hawks, used the edges of the prairies as ideal areas to ambush smaller animals.

              Botanists also know some of the species of grasses that inhabited the prairies. Big bluestem, little bluestem, gamma grass, plume grass, and Indian grass were some of the species found thriving in the sunlight.  Flowers such as Schweinitzís sunflower, coneflowers, and blazing stars helped provide diversity to the vegetation.  These grassy areas were maintained in part by the grazing of bison and deer.  The other key to their survival was frequent fires.  These fires would help negate the larger woody species that eventually could have choked off the sunlight.  Occasionally, a fire resistant tree like a longleaf pine, shortleaf pine, or post oak would survive.  Thatís why scientists believe Piedmont Prairies differed from Midwestern Prairies because they were not void of trees.  Here in the Piedmont , the prairies likely resembled a grassy ground cover with trees occurring sporadically throughout the opening. 

            Today, an effort is being forged to restore some resemblance of these prairies.  Several local landowners have taken it upon themselves to maintain the delicate balance of fire that is required for these landscapes to thrive.  Elsewhere, government agencies have increased their interest in prairies, thanks in part to the direct benefits of wildlife.  Hopefully, several years from now folks in Montgomery County will be able to visit some of these sites and gain a stronger sense of what the local landscape used to look like.