Decorah Community Prairie
and Butterfly Garden
In the beginning....
A 2002 newspaper article featuring the Decorah Community Prairie quoted Aldo Leopold: “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.”
The quote generated questions for me: What’s a Silphium? Why would they have looked different when they tickled the buffalos’ bellies? What are buffalos? Oh, yeah, they’re those majestic animals that roamed the prairies and provided food and warm covering for Native Americans until they (the buffalo and many of the Native Americans) were needlessly slaughtered by encroaching white men.
Anyway, according to my internet research, I learned that – in addition to being a lovely flowering herb – in ancient times, Silphium was used as a contraceptive. (If only those white men would have used it....)
Silphium in the Decorah Community Prairie
But, back to the Decorah Community Prairie: I’m not sure who came up with the idea for the creating the prairie (my research and inquiries were less than fruitful on that fact), but anyway, the Decorah City Council was on board. In 2001, the council decided to convert some city-owned floodplain to native prairie.
The plot thickens....
According to a report by Terry Haindfield, chair of the Decorah Prairie Committee, the prairie – while acting as a buffer strip to slow runoff and stop soil erosion along the Upper Iowa River – would also produce a multi-functional habitat between the river and a cornfield. Apparently, some prairie plants have roots extending to 25 feet deep, which can keep soil from eroding. In comparison, non-native grasses – and crops such as corn – struggle to grow even one foot into the soil.
The project started with the 11-acre grassy filter strip, and 24 acres of prairie were soon added. A one-and-a-half-acre butterfly garden was designed by Dr. Kirk Larsen, an entomologist and professor at Luther College (Decorah), and serves as an introduction to the prairie.
This is a great starting point for people like me who don’t know a bluestem from a red one, as the plantings are identified with signage that also explains the various plants and butterflies out in the main prairie area.
In late May 2002, the newspaper reported, the prairie area was overseeded. (I’ve learned that overdoing it, in the case of seeding prairies, is good). Actually “overseeding” is the planting of seed into the existing turf, without tearing up the turf or the soil. I think.
A week later, more than 12,000 “plugs” of young wildflowers (forbs) were transplanted in the prairie area by a “planting party” of more than 100 volunteers. Those Iowegians really know how to party!
Anyway, the City Council had designated $15,000, if the Decorah Prairie Committee could raise a matching $15,000 to help pay for the project. Hey, no problem for environmentally-conscious, forward-thinking Iowa people. More than $50,000 was raised, including a $15,000 donation to establish the butterfly garden.
A whole bunch of area environmental, wildlife and prairie organizations stepped up to help with the project. In addition to the City Council, members of the Decorah Prairie Committee represented Winneshiek Pheasants Forever, Upper Iowa Chapter of Ducks Unlimited, NRCS, Luther College Biology Dept., Iowa Prairie Network, Decorah Parks and Rec, Decorah Bicycles, Upper Iowa River Watershed Alliance, Decorah Community Schools, and the Iowa DNR.
Walkways and trails have been added – including a handicap-accessible sidewalk – to encourage visitors to the area for bird watching, walking, biking, running or cross-country skiing. There’s also an area where a person can just sit and enjoy peaceful ogling of the surroundings.
For the past few years, a core group of four dedicated volunteers has kept a schedule of prairie maintenance and nurture. Jerri Osenga, Robert Fischer, Mary Glock and Donna Ripple work at the site regularly from May through October, with others coming to help off and on.
Osenga became involved after moving to Decorah in 2011. Since high school, she said, she has enjoyed “walking and exploring woods and nature.” She says the primary challenges to maintaining the community prairie include eliminating invasive plants so the area can be restored to its original plan; and educating volunteers on plant identification so they can help eradicate the aggressive and invasive plants.
According to Haindfield’s report, the impact of the prairie project on the environment was immediate and ongoing. The floodplain has been protected from the yearly application of pesticides to the crop field, and a permanent cover is preventing erosion when the Upper Iowa River floods, he said. “This locale is a place of discovery, beauty, education and contemplation.”
So, Silphiums may never again tickle the bellies of buffalo, but we can tickle our fancies (sorry) with visits to – and support for – the Decorah Community Prairie and all its delightful species.
Photos from the Decorah Community Prairie
and Butterfly Garden
Prairie Smoke in the Decorah Community Butterfly Garden