“The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding.  But it is worth the effort at comprehension.  It is, after all, at the center of our national identity.” – Wayne Fields

On May 18, a variety of local organizations will descend upon the Botanical Research Institute of Texas® (BRIT) for a day of free family-friendly fun that celebrates the history and beauty of the North Texas landscape. Known as “Prairie Day”, the annual celebration focuses on BRIT’s acre-and-a-half of restored prairie habitat, which is filled with the native plant life that would have covered Fort Worth almost two hundred years ago.

Prairie Day began in 2010 when seed balls were created to help populate BRIT’s new campus meadow with a variety of native flowers and grasses. Seed balls are a Native American tradition, consisting of tiny modules that contain all the ingredients needed to give seeds a little help getting started in their new habitat – seeds, humus, dried powered red clay and sand. After being mixed with water and rolled into spherical shapes, seed balls literally become tiny gardens waiting to happen.

Local Dallas-Fort Worth organizations will also be participating in Prairie Day, including the Fort Worth Zoo, Metro Bee Keepers Club, and Blackland Prairie Raptor Center. The Log Cabin Village, a living history museum located just south of BRIT in Fort Worth’s Cultural District, will be offering a variety of activities including paper flower-making, spinning, and games. Other pioneer-themed demonstrations include making mesquite flower, acorn leeching, soap and candle making, solar oven cooking, composting, basket weaving, and gourd art.

Prairie Day visitors will have the opportunity to visit discovery booths, which will be representative of a variety of local environmental causes, including the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, the River Legacy Foundation, the Fort Worth Prairie Park, Texas Bluebird Society, and many more. Finally, performances will be staged by the Bearclaw Singers and Dancers, cowboy poet Lanny Joe Burnett, Prairie Divas & The Outlaw. Live music by 3 Fools on 3 Stools will culminate in a barbeque lunch at noon.

New to Prairie Day this year are two special guests: a pair of prairie dogs from Lubbock-based organization Citizens for Prairie Dogs. BRIT has been hosting a competition to name these special guests on their Facebook and Twitter pages, and the person who contributed the winning name submissions will receive several prizes, plus a one-on-one meeting with BRIT’s furry friends.

A Celebration of Texas History

At one time, the Texas landscape could boast about 20 million acres of tallgrass prairie. According to the Native Prairies Association of Texas, in the early 1800s the tallgrass prairie ecosystem extended across the heartland of the United States, from southern Canada through Fort Worth-Dallas before continuing south to San Antonio. (Texas’ Blackland Prairie and Grand Prairie subregions are included in this.) Before settlers arrived, the prairie was home to a variety of plant life and grazing animals, from buffalo and deer to rabbits and prairie dogs. The native grasslands protected watersheds across the Texas plains, increasing water infiltration and yield, as well as reducing erosion and reservoir sedimentation.

Today, less than 1% of that historic tallgrass prairie remains due to a combination of suburban sprawl, plowing for row-crop agriculture, and overgrazing by livestock. In fact, the tallgrass prairie is considered by the National Park Service to be one of the most endangered large ecosystems in the world.

Restoring a Prairie

The acre-and-a-half of prairie that resides next to BRIT’s sustainable, LEED-certified headquarters has proven incredibly beneficial to researchers hoping to study and preserve this disappearing ecosystem. For example, it allows BRIT researchers to learn the most safe, effective, and practical way to control the spread of invasive species such as Johnson grass (introduced from the Mediterranean region), King Ranch Bluestem (an invasive exotic grass from Asia), and Bermuda grass (a native of Asia and northeast Africa). BRIT’s prairie is also undergoing a soil remediation and regeneration project, in which different areas of the prairie are dusted with a combination of prairie soil and compost tea intended to inoculate the soil with the microbes and bacteria that are present in healthy native prairies. “The posts in the field mark the areas of different experimental treatments,” explains Dr. Will McClatchey, BRIT Vice President and Director of Research. “All of the treatments use native soil from a donor prairie site in the same watershed as BRIT. The donor soil has been processed in different ways – simply spread onto the surface of the BRIT soil, or fermented to produce a liquid that was then spread on the surface of the BRIT soil. A third choice has been to add no donor soil. Our prediction is that one of the donor soil additions will prove to be more effective at promoting prairie soil regeneration than not adding any donor soil at all.” With time and a little patience, BRIT’s prairie research will eventually prove beneficial not only for scientists, but for others who wish to manage urban grasslands.

Going Back to Basics

BRIT’s building, completed in 2011, seems brand new when compared to the legacy of the land that it stands on. And ultimately, that legacy is what the organization’s celebration of Prairie Day is all about.

“There is value in native plants, in terms of their relevancy to the history of Texas, but native plants have more value in contemporary times in terms of their effects on water, soil, and conservation in general,” says Tammie Crole, BRIT’s Head of Membership. “BRIT’s prairie demonstrates that beauty is not just defined by fancy green lawns. There is another way to save water and to maintain the integrity of the landscape, and that’s going back to the basics, filling our environment with plants that naturally grow here and belong here, as they have for hundreds of years. Prairie Day is more than a celebration of Fort Worth’s historical past. It’s a reminder that we have to be good stewards of our own lawns, our own natural resources, and our own landscapes.”

BRIT Prairie Day