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Rockefeller Prairie Trail 2020 Plant Walk

During these challenging times, getting outside to natural areas is a great way to enjoy the out-of-doors, get exercise, and reduce stress. The KU Field Station has several trails open to the public. One of our favorites is the concrete path at the Rockefeller Native Prairie, which is ADA-compliant. Helen Alexander, KU professor and plant ecologist, has developed a self-guided plant walk along this trail by marking the location of several plants and created this information sheet about the ecology and ethnobotany of these species.

Download the handout and head to the trail!

The trail begins at the gravel parking lot off of Wild Horse Road. For directions, see our map to key Field Station sites. We also encourage you to look at the signs and maps near the parking lot.

1) No dogs are allowed anywhere at the Field Station.
There are no exceptions, as the entire Field Station is a sensitive research area, and the presence of domesticated animals affects studies here.
2) Also, in the information sheet we mention Native American use for food or medicine in some cases, but, please realize this is just for interest—do NOT pick or eat any plants at the site.

The plants occur in three clusters:

  • CLUSTER 1: Plants marked in the parking lot area.
  • CLUSTER 2:  Plants marked as you walk out of the small forested area near the trailhead (including the area around the restroom). Most of these plants are in the restored prairie area and are spaced out along the trail.
  • CLUSTER 3:  A few woody plants and vines marked to the left of the overlook area, which is the trail turnaround point.

We labeled the plants and developed this overview during the last week of August 2020, so if you visit the site later in the year, you may see something different from these descriptions. For example, flowers may have turned to fruit on some of the plants, or plants that hadn’t flowered in August may now be flowering. Most plants are marked with both pink flagging tape and pink wire flags. Two species that cause skin irritation (including poison ivy) are instead marked with wooden signs.

You also can use the iNaturalist smartphone app to identify plants by taking a photo of the plant and entering it into the app; this isn't 100-percent reliable but does a great job much of the time.

Do spend time at the overlook. The bench there was a KU student project years ago. Note that you can see all the way to main campus. If you had been in the same spot 200 years ago, the view would have been very different—prairie everywhere with trees only along the Kansas river and on a few hilltops.

Enjoy your walk!

Answers to a few questions you may have

What is a prairie? Prairies are grassland ecosystems—and more than “just grass.” There are also many wildflowers. Prior to Euro-American settlement, about 85 percent of the land in northeastern Kansas was tallgrass prairie—the most eastern of the grasslands that once covered the center of North America. Prairies typically burned every three to four years prior to settlement. The fires, and animals such as bison, kept most trees and shrubs from establishing.  The vast majority of prairies were lost in the 1800s when settlers plowed the land for farming. 

Where does the Rockefeller trail go? The map at the parking lot shows the path of the trail as a red line. The first two-thirds of the trail goes through a small wooded area and a partially restored prairie. The last third of the trail is on the east side of a rare piece of land—native prairie that was never plowed. The path ends at a beautiful overlook of the Kansas River Valley. The prairie was mowed recently, so it is harder to see many of the interesting plants, but several are still visible as noted in the information sheet.

Why is the Rockefeller prairie mowed this year? The landscape is now heavily wooded, and that means that seeds of trees and shrubs are constantly “raining” into the prairie. The Field Station staff uses managed fires and mowing as a way to maintain the prairie and keep the woody plants from taking over. Mowing this summer is targeting a native blackberry that is a particularly troublesome invader in this prairie. Most prairie plants are perennials with deep roots, so the mowing does not harm them.

However, the area adjacent to the parking lot is mowed for a different reason—that tract of land is part of a decades-old restoration experiment. You can read more about this study in one of the signs along the Rockefeller trail.

Are there other places at KU with labeled plants? Yes! If you're coming from Lawrence to the Rockefeller Prairie Trail, you will pass the Native Medicinal Plant Garden, which is part of the KU Field Station, on your way to the Rockefeller Prairie trailhead. Also, on west campus you'll find the Pharmacy Garden, and on main campus, south of Jayhawk Boulevard, you'll find the Prairie Acre site.

How can I learn more about Kansas plants? There are many great resources about Kansas plants. Below are some of our favorites (most of these were the sources for the information presented in our information sheet). By the way, we mention Native American use for food or medicine in some cases, but, again, please realize this is just for interest—do NOT pick or eat any plants at the site.

Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds, by M.J. Haddock, C.C. Freeman, and J.E. Bare
Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas, by M.J. Haddock and C.C. Freeman
Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website
Kansas Wildflowers website




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