prairie plants

From left to right: grey-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), culver's root and common milkweed (Veronicastrum virginicum; Asclepias syriaca).

Prairies of the Walk Across Kentucky

An arboretum is defined as a public garden that educates the public and focuses on the study, display, and conservation of woody plants, such as trees, shrubs, and vines. The Arboretum’s signature Walk Across Kentucky (WAKY) plant collection began as an effort to conserve and secure the botanical diversity and heritage of Kentucky through the collection and growing of seeds and plants from the wild. Initial collecting goals focused exclusively on woody plants, but the collection of herbaceous perennial plants and the re-creation of ecosystems of Kentucky has progressed throughout the years. The beautiful prairies, wetlands, and spring ephemeral plantings in the WAKY are evidence of these efforts.

In the midst of summer, herbaceous plantings are especially noticeable in our blooming tallgrass prairies. There are five examples of prairies throughout the WAKY, ranging from small pockets in the West Knobs to our large 3 acre Shawnee Hills Meadow. These prairies are dynamic – the ashy-black scorched earth after a prescribed burn gives way to the yellow and maroon flowers of the spring-blooming coreopsis, our array of impressive summer blooms and finally the tall windswept grasses of the fall and winter.

If you’ve walked around The Arboretum this July, you may have noticed a preponderance of grey-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) in all of our prairies. The Shawnee Hills Meadow responded particularly well to a prescribed burn this spring resulting in the germination of culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) and an astounding amount of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), making it a perfect spot for monarch butterflies and other important pollinators.

The Pennyrile prairie, found nestled in an ox-bow curve of the path in the northeast corner of The Arboretum, has an equally stunning display of wildflowers. The Kentucky-endangered royal catchfly (Silene regia) has been spotted regenerating, in addition to the beautiful and strange member of the carrot family, rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium).

Many of these prairies will soon be transitioning to native grasses, such as Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), little blue-stem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and tall dropseed (Sporobolus compositus). These grasses provide textured color through the winter months and will provide good fuel for our springtime prescribed burns.

We hope you can visit and enjoy the sounds and sights of our prairies. In Kentucky, tallgrass prairies are an imperiled plant community due in part to land development. By creating examples of these prairies at The Arboretum, we provide a sense of place and can even help conserve some of the species that thrive in them. So remember, take only memories and leave only footprints.