Bringing Our Heritage Back to Life: Prairie Restoration

This post was written by Cam Manino, a resident of Oakland Township. Cam has been walking in Bear Creek Nature Park for decades, observing the birds, plants, and other organisms that call the park “home.” She’s also a talented photographer and shared her pictures for the post below. If you’d like to help out with prairie restoration, we have projects going right now and would love your help! Just give us a call.


On February 19, Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, held a second interesting workshop, this one on prairie restoration in Oakland Township.

Prairie, you might ask? Amazingly, yes. Historically, Oakland Township had three important kinds of ecosystems that are almost lost now – prairies, wet prairies and what are called “oak savannahs.”   We have lost 99% of them since 1800 to farming and development, but also to invasive species that have dominated certain areas.

A prairie, by definition, has less than 1 tree per acre. These prairie plants and grasses require fire to bloom or at the very least, tolerate fire. When Indians lived here, they burned the land on a cyclical basis to fertilize and plant and these native plants adapted to thousands of years of regular fire. Later, along the train tracks, for example, repeated fire gave them just the conditions they needed. Since the fires have ended, though, the prairie has slowly disappeared leaving areas that the Parks Commission is working to restore. Here’s a lovely little prairie plant from the wet prairie along the Paint Creek trail, a wildflower called “Grass-of-Parnassus:

Grass of Parnassus, a beautiful wildflower that grows in wet prairie in Oakland Township. Photo by Cam Manino.
Photo by Cam Manino.

Or here’s butterfly milkweed on dry prairie which is beginning to spread and prosper at Bear Creek due to controlled burns by the Parks Commission.

A monarch butterfly on butterfly milkweed. Photo by Cam Manino.
Photo by Cam Manino.

At the workshop, I learned that savannahs are not only in Africa. They are any piece of land with widely spaced trees (5-60 per acre) with a variety of grasses between them. As of 1800, Oakland Township was about 2/3 oak savannahs with a wide diversity of grasses. Where fire was prevented by settlement, these plants eventually got overrun by shrubs, woody plants and invasive species that crowded them out. For some, their buds have remained underground for years waiting for fire! Like the butterfly milkweed, here’s an example of big bluestem emerging in Bear Creek park after a controlled burn by the Parks Commission:

Big bluestem at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Cam Manino.
Photo by Cam Manino.

Some characteristics of these striking, tough native grasses and wildflowers are that they 1) are dependent on fire or are fire adapted; 2) they are adapted to grazing animals; 3) they tolerate drought and 4) they love sun.

The benefits of restoring these grassy savannahs and prairies are many. We could begin to see grassland birds return that many of us haven’t heard or seen in years – like the bob-white, bobolinks, meadowlarks, Henslow sparrows and others. Butterflies and a variety of other creatures become more abundant. Wildflowers bloom – like rare orchids and wild lupine that can be found in small patches along the Paint Creek trail in May. The grasses themselves swaying in the wind on a summer day are beautiful. Preserving these native plants and grasses enrich the biodiversity that was left in Michigan after the glaciers withdrew, leaving this very special set of habitats, which are rare in the Great Lakes region, for our enjoyment here in Oakland Township.

About Ben VanderWeide

I am the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for Oakland Township Parks and Recreation in southeast Michigan. I have a doctorate in biology (focused on plant ecology) and I am passionate about protecting and managing natural areas.

One thought on “Bringing Our Heritage Back to Life: Prairie Restoration

  1. Thanks Cam for writing the article and taking the photos.

    Oakland Township has much to be proud of. Not only the Parks and Trails, but the many dedicated people that love our township, like yourself and the talented staff in our Township Offices.

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