Despite the relentless rains of spring, patches of land throughout the county remain undaunted by downpour.
Lawns may be waterlogged, but step into Ogg Prairie after heavy overnight rainfall and you’ll find the ground firm underfoot.
“You can sink a huge amount of water in here because of the root system,” said Matt Garrett, field biologist with the Johnson County Park & Recreation District.
Plants with roots extending 15 to 20 feet underground channel the water away from the prairie top soil and deep into the earth.
When you step into this hardy patch of prairie, you’re also stepping back in time.
Ogg Prairie, located in Shawnee Mission Park, is one of six remnant prairies in the district.
These prairies are the wide open spaces that existed before fence posts and plows criss-crossed the land. They are what early Kansas settlers saw as they looked out toward the horizon: an endless rippling sea of tall grass.
Garrett works to preserve these pristine places from the past.
“From the roadside, a prairie looks just like a field of grass,” said Patti Beedles, program associate of Kansas City WildLands. “But when you get out there, it’s magical – it’s the biological heritage of our area.”
The WildLands mission is to care for all undisturbed natural landscapes in public places throughout the Kansas City area.
There’s so much more to a prairie than tall grass, Beedles said. In fact, the Kansas City WildLands seed team collected 224 species of seed from plants on prairies and woodlands last year.
The seeds represent not only a wide diversity of flowers and grasses but also hope for the future of some plants that have been disappearing, like Mead’s Milkweed, which is found at Lexington Lake Prairie in DeSoto.
Beedles leads a team that collects seeds from May through November.
The seeds are identified and processed as appropriate mixes for prairies or for woodlands and given to land managers like Garrett.
Garrett will spread the seeds throughout the remnant prairies to grow in areas left bare by the removal of invasive plants or he will use them to help restore a prairie to its original habitat.
Restored prairies have been discovered by discontinuing the mowing of a park area and allowing its natural habitat to return.
“The reason these prairies have not been converted to agriculture is all the rock on top of the ground,” Garrett said. “The land is unfarmable.”
In the 1850s, Johnson County had more than 250,000 acres of prairie, Garrett said.
“Now less than 1/10th of 1% of that same land remains.”
About 100 acres of remnant prairies and 900 acres of restored prairies can be found within the Johnson County Park and Recreation District.
Ogg Prairie’s 8 acres are home to 55 species of bees and nine species of milkweed as well as an abundance of sunflowers, pale purple coneflowers, prairie parlsey and many other wildflowers and grasses.
But no trees.
A tree line marks the northern edge of Ogg Prairie. Trees are where the prairie ends.
“Trees are the enemy of the prairie,” Garrett said. “We are constantly trying to force the trees back.”
If left unchecked, cedars, Bradford pear trees, bush honeysuckle and other aggressive trees and shrubs would block the sun and choke the life out of the prairie habitat. Prairies thrive in full sun.
In earlier times, bison and fires helped keep the prairie intact by controlling invasive trees and woody plants.
Without grazing and burning, “these sites can’t take care of themselves,” Garrett said.
To keep trees and other woody invaders from encroaching on Ogg Prairie, Garrett oversees a prescribed burn during dormant season every two years. With their deep root systems, the native plants survive. Only the part of the plant above ground is burned.
Preserving the prairies is important for several reasons.
“They serve as an anchor to our past and they are one of the most endangered ecosystems,” said Linda Lehrbaum, program manager of Kansas City WildLands.
“Worldwide, one-half of 1% of the original prairies – those of the early 1800s before pre-European settlement – remain today,” Lehrbaum said.
If the prairies are gone, all that can be known about them will be by reading books or watching television.
Today, however, the remnant prairies allow Kansas City urbanites to experience what the land was like before it was developed or plowed.
Without the rush and roar of traffic, visitors to a prairie hear the clear, crisp song of birds, the chattering of insects and the scurrying of other creatures in search of food.
Away from the distraction of the city, the beauty of low-growing wildflowers can be observed and flattened grassy areas can be seen where deer bedded down for a night.
When Lehrbaum gives tours of the prairies, participants often tell her afterward that they feel as if they’ve been on a vacation.
“It’s an escape.”
Remnant prairies in the Johnson County Park and Recreation District
▪ Cedar Niles Prairie. Not yet open. Scheduled for late 2020.
▪ Ernie Miller Nature Center, two small remnant prairies, 909 North Kansas 7 in Olathe
▪ Kill Creek Prairie, 11670 Homestead Lane in Olathe
▪ Lexington Lake Prairie, 8850 Sunflower Road in DeSoto
▪ Ogg Prairie, in Shawnee Mission Park, 7900 Renner Road in Lenexa and Shawnee