The BRIT Prairie

Location

Why an Urban Prairie?

The purpose of the prairie on the BRIT Landscape is to provide the public a glimpse of the aesthetics of natural or native landscapes, reduce BRIT’s demand for water resources, be a valuable source for research into restoration of prairies in urban environments, and provide a model for habitat restoration and ecological connectivity. The culture of the region arose in the context of prairies. Our goal is to reconnect contemporary Texans with the natural heritage that served as the substrate for the developing cultural heritage that was and is the Fort Worth region. If successful, recreating this important native system will help us conserve the nested cultural and natural history of Texas.

Ecosystems throughout Texas are at risk because of massive habitat fragmentation, continued extreme drought conditions, changing management regimes, and an influx of nonnative invasive species. In particular, prairies originally covering the vast majority of land in North Central Texas continue to decline in the area with only a small percentage of the original 20 million acres of prairieland remaining intact.

Where is Our Prairie Situated?

BRIT's prairie is located between the East Cross Timbers and the Fort Worth prairie vegetation zones. The Cross Timbers (including the West Cross Timbers) and Prairies occupies the region south of the Red River between the Blackland Prairie to the east, the Rolling Plains to the West, and the Llano Basin and Edwards Plateau to the southwest and south. As a vegetation study done by Dyksterhuis in 1946 explains, the Fort Worth prairie is recognized by its lack of significant tree cover. Dyksterhuis reported Little Bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) to be the overwhelming dominant plant of the area, constituting nearly two-thirds of the total plant cover. Side-oats grama, Indian grass, and tall dropseed are other common species that make up the Fort Worth prairie. 

BRIT's Prairie History

The underlying geology and soil hint toward BRIT's prairie being part of the floodplain of the Trinity river (now channelized), with Native Americans moving through the site to access resources found in and along the river. Two known archaeological sites close to the prairie (within 1/4- to 1/2-mile) indicate a paucity of stone tools and pottery sherds, but earth ovens constructed for the purpose of cooking onions and certain Camassia species and grinding stones were present.

In more recent times, the Tarrant County Public Health Department building stood on the land that BRIT now occupies, with the prairie having previously been a parking lot and the building footprint. The parking lot, car traffic, and heavy machinery during construction compacted the soil significantly and offered opportunity for weedy plants to take hold. 

To restore the land to something closer to the native prairie it once was, we first had to understand what a native prairie located in a river's floodplain might look like. With BRIT Research Associate Dr. Tony Burgess leading the way, we searched for other prairies with similar parameters including soil type to use as a template for restoration. It may not be obvious, but plants typically adapt to specific soil conditions, including the microbial communities within. Structure of the soil, texture, pH, and presence or absence of organic matter are all important features that denote a particular soil type. Given the abuse that BRIT's prairie had most recently endured, would it be possible to simply plant the seeds and have the prairie come alive?

The First Attempt

The first iteration of the BRIT Prairie began in early 2011 with a mix of short-grass, tall-grass, and wildflower species [link to planting list] spread over the 2-acre site as hydromulch (a slurry of seeds mixed with water and a fibrous matrix than can be sprayed from a large tank with a hose). A perimeter of short-grasses and trees provided visual edge structure and served as an aesthetic buffer to keep the denser, taller vegetation away from the building and perimeter walls and fencing. Plant establishment in the first year was hindered by severe drought conditions coupled with record-breaking heat waves through the summer, when the prairie was just a few months old. Dangerously high soil temperatures required more irrigation than normal, which save the newly transplanted trees but allowed weedy invasive species such as johnsongrass to outcompete slower-growing native species. By our second year, the prairie was understandably still getting started but showed signs that the pace of recovery would be quite slow without additional inputs to the system. With the prairie being in such a high profile location in the city, BRIT and its Botanic Garden neighbors decided it best to help speed the process along, vowing to turn the act into an education and research opportunity.

A Research Opportunity

Dr. Burgess and former Director of Research Dr. Will McClatchey devised an experiment that included using live prairie soil and compost tea made from prairie soil. A local ranch was scouted as a soil donor source, and the landowner ultimately agreed to provide the soil in exchange for monitoring the effect of removal of the soil from their property. BRIT researchers hypothesized that, used as an inoculant, this native prairie soil would introduce a beneficial prairie plant seed bank and help establish healthy prairie microbial communities on site. 

Map of campus grounds showing the prairie (here, to the right side of the property) and the three colored experimental plots.

A research plan was developed to test the effectiveness of live soil amendments as a restoration tool. In November 2012, three experimental plots were delineated in the prairie. One plot was amended with the living soil transplanted from the local ranch; the middle plot served as a control (no treatment); and the third was amended with a compost tea made from living prairie soil. These plots were then analyzed over several years for microbial activity, vegetation characterization, and other characteristics. Dr. Bishnu Twanabasu, a professor at Weatherford College and BRIT Research Associate, brought his students to look at mycorrhizal fungi in the prairie and its relevance to the restoration process. Dr. Omar Harvey from Texas Christian University also brought students to the prairie, examining patterns of geochemistry and placing them in the context of land use and vegetation. 

Other Investigations

The 2-acre prairie in our backyard has proven ripe for exploring questions about our natural world. At various times we've looked at the efficacy of seedballs for wildflower establishment, sampled ground-dwelling arthropods, and conducted all-fauna inventories. In November 2013 we brought in horses for two weeks to explore grazing-based management, and someday we even hope to conduct a prescribed burn.  

What We've Found: Results - COMING SOON

 

Acknowledgments

This project would not be possible without help from a number of partners and representatives including All-Saints' Episcopal School, Fort Worth Nature Center and RefugeNative American Seed, Texas Christian University, USDA-NRCS, USDA Plant Material Center, and Weatherford College. Thank you to all.

Related Articles

World Record Largest Myxomycete Found On BRIT Campus

In April 2016, a world record myxomycete was discovered on the BRIT campus. We're here to answer your questions: What is a myxomycete? Why does this matter? Should we be scared of it?
Read More >