Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Prairie or Meadow?

On Facebook I asked what differentiates the two and got a ton of responses. I've always wondered -- just like what the difference is between the Midwest and the Great Plains (that's a whole separate can of worms, isn't it?). I give you the opinions of gardeners, land managers, prairie restoration folks, and horticulturalists from around the country -- what is the difference between prairie and meadow? Here are a few of the dozens of replies I received, although I'm not sure how much it clears up:

"I guess the way I think of it (not based on anything other than my interpretation) is that a meadow is a grassy area as an interruption of something else--a grassy area that is substantially different than what surrounds it. And a prairie... well that's just prairie all day long. A meadow is an anomaly; a prairie is dominant."

"Meadows seem like such peaceful places; bees hum while butterflies dance above delicate wildflowers and swaying grasses. So it’s surprising to learn meadows are created by natural calamities when droughts or floods wipe out trees and vegetation. Prairies differ from meadows in that they arise in areas that don’t favor the growth of trees; they’re created and in many cases still maintained by fire. Ancient meadows were originally formed by volcanic eruptions and glacial activity. In the wild, meadows eventually give way to the surrounding forests. Nowadays, modern meadows are more likely to develop on unused agricultural grounds."

"The difference between a prairie and a meadow? There is none."

Longwood's meadow garden (pre-opening 2014)
"I think of meadows as often having some link to agricultural use (especially haying) but they don't have to. I would put meadow between pasture and prairie on the continuum of cultivated to wild grasslands."

"I'd say you can cultivate a meadow just as you could cultivate a prairie. On the east coast, a meadow is generally regarded as any grass-dominated plant community that is created or perpetuated by disturbance. Meadows open up in forests on their own all the time."

"I'm not saying you can't cultivate either one. But typically (at least in the Great Plains (!) if a grassland has cattle or hay bales on it, it is not called a prairie (by most people). I don't know from mountains and forests. I imagine their experience with grasslands is so limited as to also limit their credibility in grassland nomenclature."

Spring Creek Prairie -- Denton, NE
"Well, the PNW has some native grassy meadows in various parts of our states but I don't think that we have what could be termed a Midwestern prairie. We can approximate such a thing but our climate is Mediterranean w/little to no summer water so our designed meadows or prairies will definitely not look like the Dutch wave ones, or like the Midwest."     

"I'd use "meadow" for a relatively moist, fairly restricted, or bounded area, perhaps with a different grass species mix than in a "prairie." I'd use "prairie" to refer to a drier area, more extensive, and with a somewhat different mix of grass species than a 'meadow.'" 

"Yes. Meadows do have a more restricted scale than prairies. Good clarifications. Alpine meadows, for example, or wet meadows in the Sandhills."

" A prairie is always semi-arid and usually denotes a natural landform. Meadow has a more general meaning; it can be a grassy opening in a woodland, for example."

"Meadows are cultivated farmland. In the UK anyway."   


Diana Studer said...

thinking of Alpine meadows in Switzerland with cows and wildflowers, and making hay while the sun shines. HARD work!

Benjamin Vogt said...

I bet!

Kathy said...

I taught that "prairie" is French for meadow; the trappers who first saw North American prairies had no word for it in their volcabulary. (Oxford English Dictionary: < French prairie tract of meadow land). Tho your discussion addresses how it is used in the US today.