Looking out over a dry, brown field of grasses in August may not inspire a sense of wonder in the hearts of many observers, but to those in the know, the California prairie habitat before them is a sleeping beauty. Fall rains will begin the awakening of wildflower seeds that have lain dormant over the long, hot summer. In spring, purple lupines, orange poppies, and yellow goldfields will dot the landscape with cheery blooms. Historically, California prairie was covered with a colorful spring carpet of wildflowers with a mixture of native bunchgrasses that would remain green through the summer.
- Remaining areas of California prairie are highly invaded by non-native annual grasses from the Mediterranean region of Europe that turn brown in the summer heat. In areas where non-native grasses are suppressed by natural conditions or by active management, native annual wildflowers may still be present in sufficient densities to put on a breathtaking spring show.
- Much of the remaining California prairie was spared from development because of its economic value for cattle grazing. Similar to the herds of tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) and pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) that historically roamed these areas, cattle can be grazed at appropriate levels and times to help maintain vegetation conditions that favor the native forbs over non-native grasses, and cattle or other grazers such as sheep are often used as a management strategy on prairie preserves.
- Prairie soils do not support trees and shrubs because their hardpans and clay horizons keep most water too close to the soil surface for deeply rooted species to thrive.
Many native wildlife species rely on California prairie habitat for different portions of their life—from tiny insects that use only a specific species of prairie wildflower as the host plant to feed their larvae, to large birds of prey that hunt for insects, rodents, and reptiles to support their growing chicks during nesting season. Large tracts of California prairie are critical to the survival of many species that call our area home.
Places to Visit
There are several locations around the Sacramento Valley that are open to the public, where you can see and learn about California prairie habitat for yourself. Here are a few of our suggestions.
Rancho Seco Recreational Area
California Prairie Plants for Your Garden
Some plants from California prairie habitat grow well in gardens and other landscapes. Here are some plants from our area.