Alverno Prairie

A teaching and research area


The prairie is located on the Alverno College Campus immediately to the west of the Student Center parking lot. It is bordered on the east by the riparian zone (trees along the creek).


As an institution that values inquiry and active learning, we felt it was important for our students to have their own research site on campus so that they could make and test their own hypotheses on a relatively natural and complex site. Students can now regularly work on the site without spending time on travel. Other benefits include control over the management of the site and an increased level of student safety.

Our prairie is currently used in the following ways:

In the future, we may use the site for activities involving local schools and youth groups.

What is a prairie?

While most people think of prairies as grasslands, they also contain forbs (which are flowering plants that are not grasses or shrubs). Some forbs are legumes which, with symbiotic microbes, enrich the soil with nitrogen, an important plant nutrient. Prairies grow in areas that have approximately 400-1000 mm of precipitation a year and have high summer soil temperatures. This means that the water tends to evaporate before it seeps too far into the soil. One result of this is that nutrients tend to stay in the higher levels of the soil, where plants can use them. Because the aboveground parts of most prairie plants "die" every winter, valuable nutrients are continuously returned to the soil. The high productivity and fast recycling of nutients mean that prairies create deep, highly fertile soil. The best soil on earth is found in prairies. Prairies that receive a lot of rain can be taken over by woody vegetation. Historically, fire maintianed prairies. We will use periodic mowing to control woody species.

History of the site

The Alverno College Campus was once a farm. For a time, the creek was dammed to create a pond for producing ice. The current prairie site has probably been covered with trees or lawn since the establishment of the campus in 1953. The prairie was begun in the Spring of 2000. The site was prepared by killing the non-native grass with herbicide. This was done to allow the native plants to establish themselves. Next, the area was seeded with species of plants native to the area. A local supplier was used in order to get seeds adapted to the local conditions. Forty four species of grasses and forbs were planted. The seeds of legumes were innoculated with their symbiotic microbes.

The southern portion of the area in May, 2000 before seeding and the same area in September, 2000

The prairie in July, 2001

The northern protion of the area in May, 2000 before seeding and the same area in September, 2000

The prairie in July, 2001


As expected, the complex, diverse plant community has attracted a variety of animals. Some of the more obvious ones are goldfinches, which feed on the thistle seeds. Six or more of them may be feeding on the prairie at one time. Sparrows, rabbits, crickets, monarch butterflies, moths, bees, and other animals are also commonly seen and heard.


Some of the plants have already bloomed and set seeds. Others grew, but were inconspicuous and may not flower for another year or more. Still others will not germinate until certain patterns of temperature and moisture occur. This means that as time passes, more plant species will be growing in our prairie. The seeds will fill in bare spots. Due to ecological succession, we expect to see changes in both the species present and in the proportion of each species. Those who enjoy the aesthetics of all of the native flowers will be pleased to know that an established prairie will have a variety of flowers that start blooming soon after the snow melts and stop only with the first frost.

What about weeds?

The weedy species found in most lawns are very good at colonizing sunny spaces. They are not good competitors in areas that have well-established plants that are allowed to grow to mature height. Most natural and reconstituted prairies contain few weedy species, but aggressive non-native invaders will probably be removed individually before they have a chance to seed.


Creation of this prairie was made possible by NSF-ILI Grant DUE 9750658 and Alverno College. It is maintained by the Department of Biology at Alverno College.

To get ideas on the kind of experiments that can be done on your own natural areas, check out the Alverno Discovery Activities, especially the "Field Ecology on a Shoestring" page

If you have any questions about the prairie, please contact Becky Burton at

Last update: 4/18/02 by Rebecca Burton, Dept. of Biology, Alverno College