There are many great resources available on prairie plant information and identification. The Benton County IRM program has summarized information from many of these sources and created native plant profiles for species that exist in our roadsides. These can be viewed below.
Big BluestemAndropogon gerardii
Big bluestem starts out a blue-green color and turns red-tan later in the season. This grass can reach 6-8 feet, dominating the landscape. Seed heads have three spikelets that look like a turkey foot. The grass spreads by seeds or rhizomes (a horizontal underground stem that produces shoots at an interval.) It is so tasty to cattle that some farmers have called it ice cream for cattle.
Big bluestem doesn't reach its full height until mid-summer. This gives time for the early forbs and grasses to develop before bluestem takes over.Fact Sheet
Butterfly MilkweedAsclepias tuberosa
Butterfly Milkweed is known for its bright orange clumps of flowers designed to attract pollinators. This showy plant is popular in home landscaping. It is also known as butterfly weed because it does not have the thick sap typical of other milkweeds.
Milkweeds need larger flying pollinators because of the design of their pollinating mechanism. Pollen sacs are found in a slit in the flowers where the feet of pollinators get trapped while they feed. When the pollinator tries to fly away they must be strong enough to pull themselves out of the slit, carrying the pollen sacs with them. Many smaller pollinators are too weak and will die trapped in the grasp of the plant. This results in only a few of the many flowers becoming pollinated.Fact Sheet
Cleft PhloxPhlox bifida
Cleft Phlox is a flowering perennial plant that is native to the Midwest. It is rather short in stature only growing to around 6 inches in height and is found in sandy or rocky areas.
It is likely that many people have never seen Cleft Phlox. It blooms at a time when you would not anticipate flowing plants to be active and is rare enough that there are only a few known populations in Benton County. However, its numerous purple and white flowers carpet the ground in areas where it does grow and offer color during a time of year that usually lacks it.
Cleft Phlox provides several environmental and ecological benefits where it grows. It help s to prevent erosion on sandy soils and produces nectar for insects like butterflies, moths and skippers.Fact Sheet
Common MilkweedAsclepias syriaca
Common Milkweed is a flowering perennial plant that is native to the Midwest. Though it has been known as an agricultural pest for many years and was once listed as an Iowa noxious weed, the plant has many beneficial qualities. In particular its role in the reproductive cycle of the Monarch butterfly.
It is likely that many people reading this plant profile have heard something about milkweed plants or Monarchs in the past few months. Unfortunately both species have experienced drastic declines in their populations. There are a variety of reasons for these declines but the largest contributing factor is the loss of areas for them to grow and reproduce.
By allowing milkweed to grow on your property or in the ditches we can take the first steps to helping this plant and the Monarchs it supports rebound.Fact Sheet
Kittentails have dense spikes of small yellow flowers 2-6 inches long that begin blooming at the bottom of the spike and work their way up. They live in the driest parts of the prairie. When possible the plants will form a colony. Found only in the Midwest, they have become so rare that they are listed on the Upper Midwest threatened species list.Fact Sheet
Lead PlantAmorpha canescens
Young lead plant stems are light green with very fine white hairs. The more sunlight it gets, the more white hairs it can get, to the point where it will appear dusty. Purple flowers with bright yellow anthers are arranged on a two to six inch long spike. The taproot can reach 15 feet or more into the soil. Lead plant is quickly eaten by deer, rabbits, and livestock due to its high protein content making it a difficult plant to establish. The presence of Lead plant indicates that the prairie is well maintained.Fact Sheet
Little BluestemSchizachyrium scoparium
Little Bluestem grows to be 1-3 feet tall in small clumps. It ranges from a blue-green in spring to a copper-red in fall. Less fertile ground is preferred by the grass to reduce the competition coming from other taller plants. The shorter grass allows more flowering plants to thrive and with the added space between clumps there is also more room for other plants and small wildlife to move about.Fact Sheet
Nodding Ladies TressesSpiranthes cernua
Nodding Ladies’ Tresses bloom late in the season with a double spiral of delicate white flowers running up a spike 2-6 inches long. The lowest petal on individual flowers appear crystalline and nod downward. These plants prefer moist soils, bogs, and open areas as they are easily out competed. Seed pods that get carried by the wind can still perform photosynthesis if the pod is still green.Fact Sheet
Oval Ladies TressesSpiranthes ovalis
This tiny orchid hides in shady woodland areas. It only grows to be 3 -12 inches tall. Up to fifty tiny white flowers run in a tight spiral that bloom from the bottom to the top. Oval Ladies’ Tresses are a threatened species in the state of Iowa, meaning they are on the verge of becoming endangered.Fact Sheet
Pale Purple ConeflowerEchinacea pallida
Pale Purple Coneflower is one of Iowa’s most iconic prairie plant species. Growing up to 3 feet tall, this plant easily stands out in diverse prairies due to its light purple flowers. This plant prefers mesic to dry soils that are well drained. They are also extremely drought tolerant once their taproot is formed.
Many prairie plants have unique associations with other prairie species. Pale Purple Coneflower is an excellent nectar source for hummingbirds and butterflies. Its leaves are also a necessary food source for the larva of the Ottoe-skipper butterfly.Fact Sheet
Porcupine GrassStipa spartea
Porcupine grass is a pale green grass that usually leans to the side due to the weight of the spikelet. This grass has spikelets with needle-like points that cling to anything passing by. Inside of the spikelets is a seed connected to a stiff bristle. The seed falls from the spikelet and the bristle coils and uncoils with changes in moisture. This motion slowly drills the seed into the ground.Fact Sheet
Prairie Blazing StarLiatris pycnostachya
Prairie blazing stars grow spikes of purple flowers that can reach five feet high. Flowering starts at the top of the spike and works down. The flowers have two long curly styles giving them a fuzzy appearance. Pollinators and hummingbirds flock to blazing stars. These plants are a popular choice for landscaping and home gardens because they are showy and relatively easy to maintain. The flowers were once mixed with corn and fed to horses to prepare them for races.Fact Sheet
Purple Prairie CloverDalea purpurea
Purple Prairie Clover flowers form tight clusters around a cylinder cone. They begin blooming from the base of the cone and move up as the season progresses. They do well in many soil types and are eye catching making them a popular choice in prairie restorations and home gardens. The plants fix nitrogen helping improve the soil around them. Prairie clover has a high protein content making it susceptible to overgrazing. The seeds themselves can be ground into flour that is very nutritious. Tea was made from the taproot to lower fever in cases of the measles.Fact Sheet
Rattlesnake MasterEryngium yuccifolium
Rattlesnake Master is a unique prairie plant known for its flowers that resemble golf balls. Each one inch ball is actually a tight cluster of many tiny flowers. The flowers have a honey scent, making them attractive for pollinators. The narrow, blue-green leaves can reach up to three feet in length have spines along the edges. These plants prefer full sun and dry conditions.Fact Sheet
Rough Blazing StarLiatris aspera
Spikes of bright purple flowers are gathered in tight bunches that bloom from the bottom up. These flowers have long curly styles that make the groups appear to have a rough texture. The plants grow to be three feet tall. They have been known to thrive after a prairie fire. Pollinators, hummingbirds, and insects flock to Blazing Stars.
Skunk CabbageSymplocarpus foetidus
Skunk Cabbage is a flowering perennial plant that is native to parts of the Midwest and Eastern United States. This species flowers appear before the leaves and have a distinct unpleasant odor. Skunk Cabbage gets its name from this odor.
Skunk Cabbage is remarkable in that it is able to generate heat when the ground is frozen. In fact, it’s flowers can warm up to around 70º F. This allows the plant to emerge and bloom when most other spring blooming species are still dormant. After blooming, Skunk Cabbage emits an odor that smells similar rotting meat. The odor travels easily on the warm air that rises from the plant. This attracts pollinators such as butterflies, beetles and bees.
Most animals avoid skunk cabbage because is emits a burning sensation when consumed. However, bears have been known to eat young plants.Fact Sheet
White Wild IndigoBaptisia alba
White Wild Indigo is a flowering perennial plant that is native to the Midwest. It is able to tolerate most soil conditions ranging from wet-mesic to dry and forms an attractive herbaceous bush by mid summer. This makes it a popular addition to most native seed mixes.
Besides it ability to harbor beneficial soil bacteria, White Wild Indigo also provides many benefits to native insects. Bumblebees are the main pollinator of its small white flowers but the plant is also visited by several species of skippers, butterflies and moths that feed on the foliage.
One easy way to identify White Wild Indigo is to look for it in prairies in the spring as it resembles asparagus when it emerges from the ground.Fact Sheet
Whorled MilkweedAsclepias verticillata
Whorled Milkweed has smooth, needle-like leaves that form whorls around the stem. The small white flowers are important for many pollinators late in the season. These plants use rhizomes to form colonies that will bloom all at once and can spread aggressively. Infertile soil can benefit whorled milkweed as it reduces competition. It is one of the more toxic species of milkweed to livestock.Fact Sheet
Wood BetonyPedicularis canadensis
Wood Betony is a flowering perennial plant that is native to the eastern half of the United States. This species begins growing early in the spring and its leaves initially emerge with a red color. When viewed from above, the plants flowers look like a pinwheel.
Wood Betony is also known by the common name Lousewort. This common name refers to a misguided belief that livestock grazing on pastures where the plant grew would become infested with lice. This is ironic as Wood Betony itself is a parasite. A brief description of its hemiparasitism can be found below. Through its parasitism the plant is able to promote diversity by hindering the growth of tall grasses. This allows shorter grasses and forbs to thrive.
Wood Betony flowers attract a variety of pollinators. However, long-tongued bees are the primary visitors. These include bumble bees and mason bees.Fact Sheet