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Even without first-hand experience of the North American grasslands known as prairies, it’s possible to visualise what they are – or were – like. Captured in the celluloid of a hundred Hollywood westerns, there is a pervading image of these vast expanses of undulating plains, featureless but for the great herds of buffalo, cowboys with six-shooters and warring parties of Sioux Indians. It’s a landscape immortalised in the words of the song “Home on the Range”: “Oh give me a home/ where the buffalo roam/ where the deer and the antelope play.”
And it’s almost all fantasy, of course. Cowboys rarely slung their guns in shoot-outs, there are no antelope on the prairie (the antelope referred to are pronghorn, a unique and unrelated species) and by the early 1870s, when Dr Brewster M Higley, a reformed alcoholic who married five times, penned those lyrics, the buffalo (actually North American bison) were far from roaming free – they were hurtling towards extinction.
The word prairie comes from the French for meadow and was adopted by the early pioneers as they pushed west and came into contact with French-speaking settlers. Prairies are temperate ecosystems composed of grasses and flowering perennials with low, scrubby shrubs as the apex vegetation, rather than trees. Similar ecosystems exist in the South American pampas and Eurasian steppe. In North America, prairie grassland can be found from Canada to Mexico and includes all the Great Plains, the area of lowland between the Mississippi river and the Rocky Mountains, extending from Alberta in the north to New Mexico in the south. In the wetter east is tallgrass prairie, to the drier west shortgrass prairie and, in between, the coming together of the two is known as mixed grass prairie.
Many of the flowering plants and grasses will be familiar to gardeners, in particular as interest in “naturalistic” planting schemes has grown.Of the grasses, Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) now has dozens of available cultivars, with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) less popular but equally garden-worthy. The flowering plants include garden staples and their close cousins, such as purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), numerous species of golden rod (Solidago), blazing star (Liatris) and perennial sunflower (Helianthus). They share the capacity to tolerate the relatively light grazing of bison and the exposed conditions of the plains. Some of the grasses achieve this by developing root systems that extend 15ft-20ft down into the soil.
The story of the prairie is inextricably linked with that of the bison. So vast were the numbers of these 2,000lb behemoths – in the tens of millions – that early explorers reported the plains as “black, and appearing as if in motion”. They and the Great Plains were largely left alone during the early settlement of America. Until the early 1800s the plains were commonly known as the Great American Desert and were considered dry, inhospitable and hostile. From the 1830s, however, pioneers pushed west and the prairie became fragmented as claims were staked. Farming the dense soil proved difficult with traditional wooden ploughs, but in 1837 Illinois blacksmith John Deere invented a steel mouldboard plough that was strong enough to cut through the stubborn roots of the prairie grasses. Millions of acres were turned over to arable crops and huge herds of domesticated cattle were set loose to graze the rest.
To encourage belligerent Native Americans to resettle to less promising land, the military undertook a policy (possibly authored by federal government or at least tolerated) of starving the Indians into submission by exterminating the animal they relied on most – the bison. The level of slaughter was breathtaking. An estimated 7.5m animals were killed in just two years between 1872 and 1874. By the end of the century, the roaming herds had been reduced to around 750 animals, mostly kept in zoos or on small reserves.
The plains fared little better than the bison. Tallgrass prairie proved especially suited to arable crop production. Today less than one-tenth of one per cent remains.
Finding a way to preserve and enhance what pristine prairie remains – primarily the shortgrass prairie – has proven to be one of the great American conservation challenges. There are no roaring rivers or dramatic mountain ranges on the plains, no soaring forest or ochre-hilled desert.
Yet the prairie is undeniably beautiful. Close up, the unique flora is exquisite, zoom out and the wildlife is impressive and the impact of mile after mile of undulating grassland extraordinary. The US National Parks have succeeded in part because of their amenity value to visitors for climbing, skiing, hiking or day trips but the best preserved parts of the prairie are often geographically remote, with little infrastructure to support the visitor experience.
At the start of the century, Silicon Valley escapee Sean Gerrity set out to see if an entrepreneurial mentality allied to good conservation practice could make a prairie reserve a viable proposition. Born in Montana, the son of self-taught naturalists, Gerrity had spent two decades helping corporations go smoother, faster and better. The idea of a prairie reserve – an “American Serengeti” – had been around for decades but nobody had found a model that could make it happen. With the clock ticking on the remaining four places in the world where something on this scale could be achieved (the grasslands of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Patagonia and the Northern Great Plains of America), Gerrity saw the opportunity to apply his business skills to get something off the ground, and raise the $500m needed to make it happen.
The aim of the American Prairie Reserve (APR) is to create a grassland reserve in northeastern Montana of 3m acres through a combination of buying up privately owned ranches and repurposing state-owned land held by bodies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). For every acre of deeded ranch land there are often a further two or three acres of state-owned land being ranched under tenancy, and it’s this model that has made the proposition viable.
One of the keys to returning the ranched plain back to a prairie rich in wildlife – and one that visitors will want to come to – are the bison. Unlike the intensive grazing of penned cattle, bison graze on the move, creating a haphazard mosaic landscape behind them that benefits a wide range of other species. “Bison are the engineers of the prairie,” says Gerrity, citing the importance of heterogeneity over homogeneity in the recovery of the grassland flora and fauna.
The reserve now has a herd of 300 genetically pure bison (crossbreeding with cattle was a common practice) with 60 calves born this spring.
Prairie dogs are another keystone animal. Gerrity calls them “the plankton of the prairie, turning the soil to the benefit of 200 other species” – species that include dung beetle, coyotes, burrowing owl, mountain lion, pronghorn and rattlesnakes.
Most of the funding for the project has been through individual donors, including significant backing from the Mars family, and the willingness of benefactors, ranchers and government agencies has come as “a pleasant surprise” to Gerrity and his team. He has also pulled in support from his corporate past, including former Silicon Valley venture capitalist Gib Myers, now board chairman of APR. Unlike Gerrity, Myers had never been to eastern Montana and, after some initial scepticism, found the vastness of the space “an almost spiritual experience”.
A night spent in country – where “the tents didn’t work, it rained, it was miserable!” – did not deter Myers. “Things happen out there,” he says. “It’s truly wild country. To taste that as a city person is very, very exciting.”
Having learnt from reserves in Namibia, Argentina and Botswana, the infrastructure to support visitors is being established, although Gerrity stresses that they are taking time to get it right, thinking creatively to “go big but without damaging the ecosystem. It’s light touch, small scale, a rowboat in the ocean.”
Camping grounds are already being established, including a high-end campsite where visitors can experience the wild but still sleep in a cosy king-size bed under warm, dry canvas – and where 300 head of bison might just roam past your tent at any minute.
Call of the wild
Like all meadow ecosystems, the relationship between prairie plants and animals is complex, making transplantation to a garden almost impossible. The American landscape architects James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme spawned the idea of “naturalistic planting”, creating demand not only for those prairie natives that can be translocated but also cultivated varieties that have the aesthetic appeal of the wild plant but are better suited to a garden.
Numerous cultivars of Echinacea have been bred in recent years, including the desirable, but shortlived, burnt-orange flowered E angustifolia Art’s Pride. E purpurea hybrids, such as the large-bloomed Magnus, are a better bet, flowering from midsummer to autumn. There’s a plethora of cultivars of the prairie switch grass, Panicum, with Squaw Hans Hermes and Shenandoah among the best for flower and autumn foliage colour, and Heavy Metal sporting attractive blue leaves throughout the season.
Of the species of plants that do translate direct from the wild, Amsonia tabernaemontana is one of the loveliest, with pale blue flowers and butter-yellow autumn foliage.
Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries, London