May Prairie

Natural Heritage Division Website

The most impressive feature at May Prairie is the open grassland community that protrudes into the surrounding oak forest where the oak barrens begin. The open grassland is primarily comprised of a little bluestem community and a tall grass prairie community with an occasional sedge meadow found in wet depressions. A swamp forest forms the headwaters of what once was the “prairie tributary.” The tall grass prairie component with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorgastrum nutans), switchgrass (panicum virgatum) and plume grass (Saccharum giganteum) tend to follow the old prairie tributary. The little bluestem community represents the drier end of the prairie gradient and is prevalent throughout the open grassland. In spring. the little bluestem community provides a splendid floral display of orange, blue, and white color as Indian paintbrush, false indigo, and bluets appear in full bloom. In late summer many species of sunflower common with the rare southern dock (Silphium pinnatifdum) and two species of blazing star (Liatris spicata and L. microcephala) prominently flowering.

May Prairie is one of the State’s most floristically diverse natural areas with 25 of its more than 300 plant species that occur here considered rare in Tennessee. It supports disjunct plants known from the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains including the only state location for both the snowy orchid (platanthera nivea) and the coastal false-asphodel (Triantha racemosa). In addition, May Prairie has many species common to the Midwest tall grass prairie that are unusual in the Southeast. May Prairie was discovered during a botany foray in 1947 by Dr. A J. Sharp and colleagues from the University of Tennessee while stopping for lunch at the Prairie Cafe. They were told that a prairie could be found behind the restaurant.

The Tennessee Conservationist excerpt
The Clebsch Legacy and Wild Tennessee
by Bob Fulcher

The Prairie Cafe, humped on the shoulder of Highway 41 just south of Manchester, must have appeared like an interesting adventure to three sweaty tramps on the Fourth of July, 1947. Those were the days when every roadside plate-lunch emporium offered promise: home-made cornbread, home-made pie, home-made everything in large helpings for a very fair price.

The three travelers bad been on the road for days, camping on unclaimed corners of wood lots and church yards, motoring in a triple-axled, just surplused WWII vehicle they called “the Green Elephant.” Each had $1.50 a day to spend for food, and that was plenty.

After they had eaten all they wanted, and had queued up at the cash register, the group’s leader, Jack Sharp, asked the man behind the counter, “Why is this called the Prairie Cafe?”

“Because of that prairie over there.” the man said, flatly, and pointed further south down the road.

If that question bad ever been asked before, the inquirer must have shrugged at such a matter-of-fact answer. This group, however, did not. A.J. Sharp, already established as the authority on the flora of the Great Smoky Mountains, and as a world-class rare plant hunter, bad been brought up on prairie ecology at Ohio State University. Prairies were familiar, too, to his companions, Alfred Clebsch, one of Tennessee’s most accomplished and fascinating “non-professional” naturalist and his 17-year-old son, Eddy. Their Montgomery County home area was dotted with relic open sites persisting since the days when the region was known as The Barrens.

The three men quickly filed down the highway, pushed past the screening trees and shrubs at the road side, and stepped into May Prairie. Big Bluestem grass reached up, head high. Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, and Switch Grass blanketed the field. Latin names began flying among the sweat bees and rare orchids. Prairie names. The party had just started.

The 80-acre site would yield a trove of new state records (the first discovery of a plant species within a state boundary), become a State Natural Area, and remain the most complete and impressive, hands-down-finest association of prairie plants surviving in the Southeast. For Ed Clebsch, spending his first summer in a paid position as a botanical field worker, it was a discovery of enduring excitement. For the Clebsch clan of Tennessee, small in number, add one more star in their hefty crown of accomplishments in conservation, education, research, and exploration regarding the natural treasures of Tennessee and the world beyond.

Natural History, Sept, 19
This land Tennessee: A lone prairie – May Prairie
by Robert H. Mohlenbrock

In 1975 the state of Tennessee purchased an eighty-two-acre parcel and designated it a State Natural Area, and in 1981 the federal government registered it as a National Natural Landmark. At purchase, the property consisted of five acres of good prairie, fifteen acres of degraded prairie (overrun by small trees and shrubs), and sixty-two acres of surrounding forest, to be used as a buffer zone. From aerial photographs taken years earlier, it was possible to identify twenty additional acres of the forest that had been prairie half a century ago. Tennessee’s Division of Natural Heritage is taking steps to convert the degraded and forested sections back to pure prairie through a management plan that includes prescribed burning.

Tennessee ecologists Brian Bowen and Milo Pyne offer an explanation of how May Prairie came to exist in a region dominated by forest The soil in this region, a rather high, flat zone called the Eastern Highland Rim, just west of the Cumberland Plateau, consists of clay overlain by a thick mantle of wind-blown particles, called loess, deposited at the end of the last ice age, about 12.000 years ago. The clay, which can become saturated in winter, is not very favorable for the roots of trees. while the mantle of loess is ideal for the more shallow-rooted prairie species. Nevertheless, the area might have become forested long ago had it not been for an especially hot and dry climatic episode between about 8,000 and 4,000 years ago. This enabled prairie species to invade areas that became too dry for trees. A prairie peninsula may have extended into parts of Tennessee at this time, but fossil evidence shows that May Prairie itself remained covered by forest until about 6,000 years ago.

When the climate became cooler and wetter, forest reclaimed the land. May Prairie and other prairie remnants in Tennessee might have been swallowed up had it not been for the presence of Native American peoples, who apparently burned them periodically in an effort to maintain better hunting grounds for bison, elk, and deer.

Tall-grass prairie species include big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and Switch-grass (Panicum virgatum), some of which attain heights of twelve feet by late autumn. Mixed in among these grasses is an array of prairie wildflowers: Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis), Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata), Tickseed Sunflower (Bidens polylepis), Prairie Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.), Striped Gentain (Gentiana villosa), Purple False Foxglove (Agalinis purpurea), Smooth prairie phlox (Phlox glaberrima), Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana), Narrow-Leaf Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), Hairy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis), Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifloium), Green Milkweed(Asclepias longifolia subsp. hirtella), Roundheaded Lespedeza (Lespedeza capitata), and several kinds of asters and goldenrods. Most of these bloom from late spring and summer into autumn, while others, such as Bird’s-foot Violet (Viola pedata), Star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta). and Azure Bluet (Houstonia caerulea), bloom as early as April.

The low and shrubby prairie pussy willow is scattered throughout the prairie, while in one area at the edge is a huge stand of the yellow, sunflower like southern prairie dock (Silphium pinnatifidum), one of Tennessee’s threatened species. Where moisture accumulates in shallow depressions, typical flowers are Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Hollow Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Anise-Scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora), Allegheny Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens), Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula), and Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata).

Coastal plain plants include the very showy Coastal Plain Bog Asphodel (Triantha racemosa) and Death Camas (Zigadenus leimanthoides) of the lily family, Canby’s Lobelia (Lobelia canbyi), Nuttall’s Milkwort (Polygala nuttallii), Narrowleaf Lespedeza (Lespedeza angustifolia), White-Bract Thoroughwort (Eupatorium leucolepis), Dwarf Sundew (Drosera brevifolia), and an assortment of grasses and sedges. Snowy Orchid (Platanthera nivea), Small Green Wood Orchid (Platanthera clavellata) and other wild orchids have been recorded.

Swamp forest, at times with standing water, borders the southwestern edge of the prairie. The dominant trees are Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), and Willow Oak (Quercus phellos). A thick shrub layer consists of Sparkle Berry (Vaccinium arboreum), Swamp Dogwood (Comus amomum), and Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris), while numerous wetland wildflowers cover the forest floor.

Dry, upland forest borders the rest of the prairie. It is a mixture of Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica), Willow Oak (Quercus phellos), Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata), Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica), Persimmon (Disospyros virginana), Winged Elm (Ulmus alata), Red Mulberry (Morus rubra), and other trees. The shrubby Hazelnut (Corylus americana) and Blueberry (Vaccinium atrococcum) grow above such wildflowers as Indian Physic (Gillenia stipulata), Lance-Leaf Loosestrife (Lysimachia lanceolata), and Round-leaved Beggar’s-lice (Desmodium rotundifolium). Two common ferns are Christmas Fern (Polystichum accostichoides) and Ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron).

Robert H Mohlenbrock, professor emeritus of plant biology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, explores the biological and geological highlights of United States national forests and other parklands.

Latin names added to this article where possible by Todd Crabtree and George Wallace.

Updated 3/09/2022 12:00 PM by George Wallace

The following is the current floristic list of the plants found at May Prairie, Coffee County Tennessee. The author of this list is Dennis Horn.

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