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YA Eco Mysteries, Memoirs, Novels & Travel

Restoring Alabama’s Native Prairies

Limestone Park and Native Prairies

I’m standing at the edge of a flourishing prairie in
Limestone Park Prairie, Alabaster—practically on Birmingham’s doorstep. Butterflies flit through a colorful maize of wildflowers.

Buckeye
Buckeye, Limestone Prairie Park (Boris Datnow)

Gulf Fritallary
Gulf Fritillary, Limestone Prairie Park, Alabama (Boris Datnow)

Birds feast on the seeding plumes of native wild grasses. Ken Wills, our Audubon field trip guide, leads us around the patch, naming native wildflowers, Indian Blanket, Purple Aster, feathery Liatris, orange Coneflower, just to name a few. And prairie grasses: Little Bluestem, Yellow Indian Grass, White Prairie-clover and Big Bluestem. A prairie in Alabama? Really?


Limestone Wildflowers
Indian Blanket, Limestone Prairie Park, Alabama (Boris Datnow)

Limestine Park Prairie
Purple Aster Limestone Prairie park, Alabama (Boris Datnow)

My first inkling that prairies once flourished in our state began with the writing of my
eco mystery about monarch butterflies (Book 6). My mentors—Michelle Reynolds, expert on wildflower gardening, Paulette Ogard, and Sara Bright, authors of Butterflies of Alabama: Glimpses into Their Lives—helped me to see the vital link between butterflies and the restoration of wildflower prairies in our gardens and urban spaces.
Like many citizens of our state, I was unaware that prairies once flourished in Alabama. These indigenous prairies were quite large, covering at least 17700 acres in the Black Belt.  Today less than 1% of the Black Belt's open prairie habitat remains intact. Where have all the prairies gone?
By the early 1800s, the fertile soils of the Black Belt Prairies began to attract settlers. Armed with plows and teams of mules, they converted the native prairie grasses and flowers into cotton fields. In many areas, the fragile black soil was washed away, exposing the underlying chalk. Today, the Black Belt serves as pasture for livestock or for aquaculture, with only limited amounts of row crops. Non-native grasses and invasive woody plants have also degraded the prairies. Human activities, including fire suppression, dumping of waste and trash, and motorized vehicles continue to destroy what’s left of these special habitat.  
The Birmingham Audubon Society’s Urban Bird Habitat Initiative spearheaded Limestone Park Prairie. And thanks to the unflagging dedication and expertise of Dick Mills and Ken Wills the prairie restoration project is now a reality —a special place for birds and wildlife, and for nature lovers. Indeed, prairie grasslands in the Black Belt Region have outstanding biological diversity, hosting more than 400 species of plants and several thousand species of invertebrates. 
Many who care deeply about the natural world have not yet learned about the prairies in their own backyard, or how they, as citizens, can influence conservation efforts. By joining organized field trips offered by organizations like the Birmingham Audubon Society, and volunteering your time you can do your bit to restore these beautiful and vital prairie habitats.
On a personal note: Somehow I feel a special affinity to the prairies.  Perhaps it's because I grew up on the high veld, South Africa's prairie lands. I treasure the memories of visits to game parks where moving herds of wildebeest, zebras, eland, and the predators that follow them still roam free (described in my memoir, Behind The Walled Garden of Apartheid). For me, walking through a prairie evokes a sense of nostalgia, a feeling of coming home. And now, decades later, I can  savor a sweet piece of “home" so lovingly restored in Alabama. 

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