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Wetland Plants and Plant Communities of Minnesota and Wisconsin


Prairies are open, herbaceous plant communities dominated by native grass and grass-like species; at least half of the vegetative cover is made up of true grasses (Curtis 1971). These communities are similar to fresh (wet) meadows, but are dominated by native grasses and forbs associated with prairies such as prairie cord-grass, big bluestem, gayfeather, New England aster, culver's root, prairie dock and sawtooth sunflower. Wet to wet-mesic prairie communities only occur south of the vegetation tension zone, although a few prairie species may be found in sandy barrens and wet swales north of the tension zone.

Prairie communities occur along a moisture gradient as shown below. The wet end of the gradient, wet and wet-mesic prairies, meet the criteria for wetlands. These are also referred to as low prairies.

Prairie community moisture gradient

Prior to European settlement, vast expanses of prairie existed in southern Wisconsin and western and southern Minnesota. Minnesota alone had approximately 18 million acres of prairie. Prairies evolved with fire and fire is essential to maintenance of prairies. Without periodic burns, prairies become subject to invasion by woody vegetation. In the pre-European settlement landscape, huge wildfires roared across the prairies of Minnesota and Wisconsin. European settlement brought two things to the prairie: the plow and fire suppression. Once the prairie sod was broken, and the wet prairies were drained, the deep, black soils proved to be among the most productive farmland in the world. More than 99 percent of prairies in Minnesota and Wisconsin were destroyed by the conversion to agricultural use. Prairies that were not plowed under were hayed or intensively grazed for decades resulting in degradation and changes in species composition. Remaining remnant prairies often suffer because of fire suppression and may be lost without intensive management. Given this nearly total loss of prairie, it is not surprising that prairie species once common in Minnesota and Wisconsin are now threatened or endangered. Two prairie orchids, the western prairie fringed orchid and white lady- slipper, are prime examples.

Some large tracts of virgin (never plowed) or otherwise high quality prairie still exist on publicly-owned preserves or those purchased and managed by private conservation groups. Notable examples are the Chiwaukee Prairie in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, and the preserves within the Interbeach Area of Glacial Lake Agassiz in northwestern Minnesota.

A wet to wet-mesic prairie

VEGETATION: This example of a wet to wet-mesic prairie includes gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya), prairie cord-grass (Spartina pectinata), giant manna grass (Glyceria grandis), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), hummock sedge (Carex stricta), a spike-rush (Eleocharis compressa), green bulrush (Scirpus atrovirens), sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Riddell's goldenrod (Solidago Riddellii), grass-leaved goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), prairie loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora), water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), slender rush (Juncus tenuis), redtop (Agrostis gigantea), winged loosestrife (Lythrum alatum) and shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa).

SOILS: Colwood silt loam (Typic Haplaquolls), a poorly-drained mineral soil underlain by stratified lacustrine silt and very fine sand. Landscape position is a swale connecting morainal hills with an extensive wetland complex on muck soils.

HYDROLOGY: High groundwater table and, to a lesser extent, surface runoff from morainal hills. Colwood soils have a seasonal high water table at the surface to 12 inches below the surface during October through May of most years.

LOCATION: Scuppernong Marsh, Kettle Moraine State Forest, Waukesha County, Wisconsin.


Prairie Cord-grass (Spartina pectinata Link)
Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii Vitman)
Gayfeather (Liatis pycnostachya Michaux)
New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae L.)
Riddell's Goldenrod (Solidago Riddellii Frank)
Sawtooth Sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus Martens)
Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum Jacq.)
Western Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera praeclara Shev. & Bowls.)
Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum (L.) Durand and Jackson)
Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum (L.) Farw.)

Previous Section -- Canada Rush (Juncus canadensis J. Gay.)
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