Bayou-Diversity (1 March 2020) The term prairie usually brings forth images of treeless landscapes blanketed in a waving sea of grasses reaching to the horizon. Indeed such was once the case across millions of acres in the American west and Midwest. This unique habitat nourished bison herds that numbered in the tens of millions together with countless other species of plants and animals.
Prairies are often classified as either short-grass or tall-grass prairies depending on the dominant types of grasses that grow there. Short-grass prairies were generally found further west in areas of low rainfall. Certain soil types often favor the development of prairies but even so, prairies were usually under constant attack from invading woody plants. Just as an abandoned lawn will eventually revert to brush and then trees, prairies will eventually turn into savannahs or forests in many cases without some type of intervention. This intervention came naturally in the form of huge herds of bison eating and trampling everything in their path during cyclic migrations. It also occurred as fire from lightning strikes or set intentionally by Native Americans. In any case prairie plants thrived with this disturbance and the invading woody species were set back.
In Louisiana tall-grass prairies once covered more than 100,000 acres in the southwest coastal area. Less than 1 percent remains and most of this is found on old railroad rights-of-way. In our area of northeast Louisiana they were much less common and smaller in size, but there is no doubt that they did exist here. In 1783 Don Juan Filhiol, Spanish commandant of the District of Ouachita, made his first permanent settlement at a place called Prairie des Canots (meaning prairie of the canoes) where Monroe now stands. In 1812 Amos Stoddard, when describing the same area wrote, "on the left bank of that river are extensive prairies, the soil of which is luxuriant and productive, bearing a high coarse grass.” The village of Oak Ridge in Morehouse Parish was once known as Prairie Jefferson and early maps note Mer Rouge as Prairie Mer Rouge. Some writers have conveyed that Mer Rouge which means Red Sea was named by early explorers who found the area covered in a sea of red clover. This is highly unlikely as red clovers are not native to Louisiana and were not introduced to the area until many years later.
As bison were probably never very common here, our prairies were likely maintained by fire. In 1804, William Dunbar reported "a smoky and misty appearance" in the atmosphere shortly before their arrival at Ft. Miro and attributed it to "the common practice of the Indians and hunters of firing the woods . . . ”
Today only a few small areas that can be considered native prairie are known in northeast Louisiana. In addition to the grasses spring brings forth a profusion of purple coneflowers, Indian blankets, and wine cups to remind us of what was once not so rare.