Tucked among the crop circles and plowed acres east of Denver is a patchwork of land that holds one of Colorado’s most precious and vulnerable landscapes: native prairies. Bordering the eastern flanks of the Rocky Mountains, these prairies occur in a region commonly referred to as the Eastern Plains. The high elevation plains roll down from the foothills of the Rockies, losing nearly 4,600 feet of elevation as they reach Kansas City.
Between the cultivated areas, the prairie, or Short Grass Steppe, is a vibrant sea of grasses, forbs and shrubs that support an exquisite diversity of native insects, spiders, snakes, turtles, birds and mammals, some of which occur no where else in the world. For over 200 years, botanists in Colorado have clambered to the cool montane forests or into the deep canyons of the high desert. Only a few hardy botanists headed east to the hot, windy Eastern Plains to explore its hidden treasures.
Despite their diligent work, much of the plant diversity on the Eastern Plains remains undocumented. Botanists from Denver Botanic Gardens, including myself, have begun to follow these prairie botanists east, and we are partnering with land owners to venture into under-documented areas. Finding an undisturbed, intact prairie is unlikely given historic land use, including the introduction of non-native species, however, we do find remnant native communities supported by respectful and forward-thinking land owners.
On a recent trip, just a stone’s throw from Kansas, we stumbled across one of the unicorns of Eastern Plains plant collecting – water-loving, or aquatic, plants. In a region that often receives less than 12 inches of annual rainfall and currently undergoing 20 years of drought, these gems of the water were exciting finds.
Surviving on the edge of drying playas, in ditches moving cherished water to crops or in stock ponds for cattle are these beautiful bottle-green plants. With names like spiral ditch grass, horned pondweed, ribbon weed and hairy water clover, the enchantment could wane. But these plants play a crucial role in supporting wildlife moving through the prairie. They enrich and nourish regional biodiversity, including the next generation of birds, fish and insects.
One particularly exciting find was the hairy water clover, or Marsilea vestita. This little fern, which looks like a perfect four-leaf clover, is imperiled or vulnerable in quite a few states, although the species is secure in Colorado.
As we encounter these gems and many, many others, we judiciously collect and press a few individuals to document the occurrence of these species. These collections are housed in the Gardens’ natural history collections and available for research now as well as for the next generation of ecologists, taxonomists and Coloradoans, who can learn about and celebrate their natural wealth.
We will continue to head east to document and promote these vulnerable native prairies, regardless of the heat, sleet, rain, wind, prickly plants and biting and sucking insects.