About Natural Areas
The Grand Prairie
Illinois was at the easternmost reach of the tallgrass prairie regions, an area known as the "Prairie Peninsula", named because it was bounded on the North, East, and South by a sea of forest. The lush tallgrass prairie that covered Central Illinois was called the Grand Prairie. At its peak, it sustained more than 300 species of plants, 60 species of mammals, 300 species of birds, and well over 1000 kinds of insects. Among swaying grasses grew wildflowers that bloomed from spring until fall in a succession of brilliant colors.
The Grand Prairie thrived for 8000 years and adapted to survive steaming summers, bitter winters, severe drought, and raging fire. In the process of growing, the plants and animals helped to create some of the most fertile soils in the world. With the advent of settlers and the invention of the steel plow, the grasslands were plowed under and transformed into farm fields. As recently as the 1820s, prairie covered about 22 million acres in Illinois. Today, less than 2500 acres of high-quality prairie remain, over 99% having been lost to plowing and paving. Our once vast prairie exists now mainly in scattered remnants, often found in pioneer cemeteries, along railroad rights-of-way, and on steep bluffs high above rivers.