Possumhaw: Where is the Prairie?

July 30, 2012 9:45:29 AM

Shannon Bardwell - [email protected]


A few times I've been asked where the Prairie is, so I'll share how I found out and how you can find out for yourself. 


One fall, downtown Columbus fluttered with the golden leaves of the gingko. I stopped by Smith's Landscaping and asked for two gingko trees. It was almost Sam's birthday and I thought he'd be pleased if I gave him gold. 


Alan Smith asked, "Exactly where do you live?" Then he commented, "Oh, you can't grow gingkoes in the Prairie. How about an indigenous tree like the possumhaw?" 


Three possumhaws came home with me and began to learn where I lived, its history, its people, and its soil. I learned I did not live in Columbus where gingkoes, azaleas and Knockout roses thrive; I lived in the Prairie, where I would struggle with the soil and where Extension horticulturist Dr. Jeff Wilson would instruct, "Don't put any more native soil into the raised beds. You will have to 'amend' the soil to grow vegetables." 


This was after I had taken stalks of Brussels sprouts and broccoli to the gardening class at Plymouth Bluff. The produce was so unrecognizable that Dr. Wilson in turn took it to Mississippi State to have it examined. Apparently my pH levels were off the chart after having put Prairie pond silt into the raised beds. It seemed like a good idea at the time. 


Jan W. Midgley's "All About Mississippi Wildflowers" explains that the Black Belt Prairie forms a strip of land starting in Tennessee and dropping narrowly down through Alcorn, Prentiss, Lee, Chickasaw, Monroe, Clay, Oktibbeha, Lowndes and Noxubee counties before drifting over into Alabama.  


According to Midgley, originally the Prairie was probably a big bluestem (grass) prairie with a few blackjack oak and post oak. The soil was difficult to work but was rich, so it was farmed extensively up until World War I. Eventually, the soil was depleted and the boll weevil struck. Some rich prairie soil remains in various stages of succession. 


The Prairie supports wildflowers like coreopsis, butterfly weed, black-eyed Susan, blazing star, some wild blue phlox and jack-in-the pulpit.  


We find that cosmos, ajuga, crepe myrtle, iris, daffodil, prairie petunias, swamp iris, sunflower, assorted mints, prickly pear cactus and buttercups do well.  


The Mississippi Entomological Museum's website provided by MSU and Joe MacGown, Richard Brown and JoVonn Hill gives a thorough accounting of the prairieland then and now. I'd give you the site address but it's longer than a 36-leg caterpillar. Just Google "Black Prairie Belt."  


The site describes the Prairie as being approximately 310 miles in length and up to 25 miles wide, narrowing at the ends; there are photos. There's even a link to "Friends of the Prairie Belt." 


Renowned artist and scientific illustrator Joe MacGown's work is on the site. I consider Joe and his lovely wife, Julie, our Prairie neighbors -- that is, as the crow flies.

Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.