There are few sights more evocative of autumn than a sea of grasses and flowering plants, turning gold, blazing against a brilliant blue September sky. Prairie, pampas, savannah, meadow or grassland, no matter what you call them, these habitats have an important place in our hearts.
The term ‘meadow’ and ‘grassland’ are often used interchangeably, but they are different ecosystems. On the East Coast meadows are transitional. They arise when something dramatic happens in the environment. If you go back a century or two, that was usually a fire. More recently it was cattle grazing or mowing for crop planting. The plants that spring up as a result give the meadow its character. Without repeated disruption a meadow is fleeting. Within a few years, trees and shrubs will once again dominate and eventually the meadow will be gone, replaced by forest. The meadows around the Scenic Loop at Tyler are maintained by the Horticulture Staff through winter mowing. The mowing provides the interference that is needed to keep this area clear of encroaching tree species. You will see this process during December and January.
A grassland is something different. Grasslands occurs when there is a limiting factor in the ecosystem that naturally discourages the growth of most trees and shrubs. Usually limiting factor is water. These habitats get enough rain for communities of grasses, but not enough for forest or large swathes of flowering plants. But there are grasslands here on the East Coast too, where our rainfall is plentiful enough to support even thirsty trees like maple and black walnut.
Grasslands here occur because of something in the soil. In the case of Pink Hill, the Serpentine bedrock changes the soil so dramatically that most plant species can’t survive. Those that can are often so rare that they are globally threatened, as is the case with Serpentine aster which can be found in healthy populations at Pink Hill. Grasslands on the East Coast are very rare, and the species that call them home rarer still.
Grasslands and meadows do have something in common. We need them. There are few habitats that have so quickly vanished and been replaced with human development. The vast prairies of the Midwest, once so iconic of the North American landscape, have largely become farm fields, cities and towns. Here on the East Coast, very few open grasslands remain. Our Pink Hill Serpentine Barren is an ancient ecosystem that we are fortunate to steward. It’s worth the effort, as are the meadows around the Scenic Loop.
The proof of their importance lies in the activity you see when you visit. Come by this autumn and see if you can spot a Monarch butterfly visiting a flower for one last sip of nectar before they make their long journey south. Keep your eye out for spicebush swallowtail caterpillars as they prepare to overwinter as pupae. Watch as the red tail hawks circle overhead to take advantage of the open habitat to hunt. The diversity of insects and birds reminds us how many critters are relying on us to preserve this important ecosystems.