Western Iowa Gems – Loess Hills Prairie Seminar 2017

Two weekends ago, I spent some time out in the Loess Hills attending an annual prairie seminar.  Every June, nature enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds come together and celebrate the special land forms found in western Iowa. Basically, it’s a three day montage of prairie hikes and talks led by experts and volunteers who know a thing or two about the Loess Hills prairie ecosystem.  Since it was my third time going to the seminar, I had a better understanding of the events, and more importantly I was able to become more familiar with the plants I had only seen a few times.

The seminar takes place in the heart of the Loess Hills outside of Onawa, Iowa, at the Loess Hills Wildlife Management Area.  The hills all together have a range from the northwest corner to the southwest corner of the state.  I have seen most of the range, and it is surprising how different the hills are as you travel the North-South gradient.  Just as neighboring communities in a large city may have different dialects, the hills seem to change in personality as you travel a few miles in any direction. To get a true sense of the hills, I believe a person needs to view more than just one hillside.

Some of the prairie plants you will see there are not found elsewhere in Iowa, or they are rarely found in the prairies beyond the hills.  The unique soil composition that creates the Loess Hills causes the plant community to be different from other places.  It holds moisture and nutrients differently than the prairies that created the black soil that is now dominated by agriculture.

The last glaciers that covered the Midwest grinded sediments into flour-like granules, and as they receded the melt water carried the silt into the flat Missouri River floodplain.  As the melt water rivers dried up, the fine sediments were exposed and carried by the winds across all of Iowa.  What is now the Loess Hills was formed by the heavier silt particles that first fell out of the sweeping winds.  Soon after, grasses and other prairie plants colonized the dunes and protected them from eroding back into the floodplain.

The seminar gave me a chance to reconnect with the plants that I have only seen in the hills.  When I was first introduced to the prairies of the Loess Hills I was just learning plant identification, so these plants are toward the beginning of my mental plant ID guide book.  But, there are still a lot of plants that aren’t found in my mental notes yet.

The hills come close to being a true Iowa wilderness.  In some spots, you can look around and almost see what Iowa was like before European contact.  Nothing man-made in sight.  Being in a place like that provokes a feeling that I cannot describe.  I’d like to see more places like that here in Iowa.

Anyway, it was a great way to spend the weekend…

Soapweed Yucca (Yucca glauca), Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii), Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Large Flowered Beardtonque (Penstemon grandiflorus), Turin WMA
Turin WMA
Lack of historic wildfires has favored trees and shrubs that shade out the prairie.  This is the stump of an Eastern Red Cedar that has been removed, and now the sun is able to give life to what was beneath it.
Yucca glauca, Turin WMA
Downy Paintbrush (Castilleja sessiliflora), Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), Loess Hills WMA
Prairie Turnip (Psoralea esculenta), Loess Hills WMA
Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium campestre), Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Prairie Ragwort (Packera plattensis), Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii), Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Scarlet Gaura (Gaura coccinea), Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Loess Hills WMA



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