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Hidden In Plain Sight: Historic Prairie Fields Maintained And Researched In Washtenaw County

Jun 5, 2018

Dow Field Prairie in Ann Arbor’s Nichols Arboretum.
Credit Lisa Barry

Michigan is known as the “Great Lakes State” with a lot of focus on water, but many people may not realize there are numerous prairie fields here including in Washtenaw County.

89.1 WEMU’S Lisa Barry takes you to some of the area’s “large open grasslands” hidden in plain sight…


People often romanticize prairies thinking of cowboys and cattle or a popular book series turned into a TV show in the '70's and think of them being out west, not necessarily in Michigan.

Bob Grese
Credit Lisa Barry

Bob Grese is director of Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum and says there are as many as a hundred small prairies around Washtenaw County, but only a dozen or so of 5 to 10 acres or more.  Grese defines a prairie as being an area or field with less than five trees per acre.

Closeup on plant in Ann Arbor’s Dow Prairie Field.
Credit Lisa Barry

We met at Dow Field, a large prairie area in the Ann Arbor arboretum, one of the older, historic remnant prairies in the area… donated to the University of Michigan by Detroit Edison in July of 1943.  Historic “remnant” prairies date back hundreds of years and provide a place for unusual plants and species to grow.

Eastern Michigan University professor Emily Grman conducting an experiment in a restored Ann Arbor Prairie Field.
Credit Lisa Barry

Emily Grman is an assistant professor in the biology department at Eastern Michigan University.  She is conducting an experiment in the Johnson preserve part of a restoration prairie project on land owned by the Legacy Land Conservancy of Ann Arbor.

EMU professor Emily Grman uses a soil probe to research the soil in Ann Arbor prairie field
Credit Lisa Barry

She started her experiment in the fall of 2015 with students as part of a course she was teaching.  A lot of information can be found in the dirt as she demonstrates with a special instrument that takes a soil sample.

Aunita Erksine is a volunteer steward of several natural areas around Ann Arbor and an advanced master gardener specializing in native plants.  She volunteers at one of the many natural prairie lands along the Huron River, including one on private property where St. Joseph Mercy Hospital is located in Ann Arbor.  It is called the “Shanghai Prairie."

Whether it’s on hospital property or at Ann Arbor’s Nichols Arboretum, you’ll be standing in the middle of history if you visit a local prairie... hidden in plain sight.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu