When asked about what Ohio’s original pre-settlement landscape looked like many picture primeval forests with towering trees. And while that vision isn’t wrong, our state was comprised of much more than just forest. Prairie regions also occurred throughout the state with the largest and most impressive being central Ohio’s Darby Plains. Situated between Columbus and Springfield, the Darby Plains once covered over 400 square miles with tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, and thicket habitat.
The Darby Plains came into existence around 4,000-8,000 years ago during a warm and dry period following the last glacial period. This climatic shift caused the tallgrass prairies of the western plains to migrate east and establish in Ohio. Once the climate shifted back to a cooler, wetter cycle, reforestation ramped back up and Ohio’s grasslands began to disappear. The prairie remnants the Europeans found in the 18th and early 19th centuries largely still existed due to fires set by indigenous tribes. These burns helped keep the trees at bay and the landscape open. Once the fires disappeared and Europeans discovered prairie soils were rich and fertile, it wasn’t long before nearly all of the Darby Plains was but a memory. However, there are still small prairie patches still around including a few patches on properties owned by the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves.
The Division’s Scenic Rivers Program has acquired over 1,000 acres of land along the Darby creeks to protect the wooded floodplains and wetlands that are vital to river ecosystems, with the added benefit of these Darby Plains prairie patches nestled on the creek’s bluffs. Thanks to the recent addition of new part-time staff member Norah Mermis, we now have additional capacity to manage these special patches.
The timing is excellent – these patches are small and getting smaller due to invading autumn-olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and bush honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.). Adding to our restoration efforts on the forest tract, with help from the Ohio Natural Areas and Preserves Association and The Nature Conservancy Ohio, we have reopened patches of prairie here and are excited to see how the influx of sunlight will revive the rare prairie communities.
In addition, approximately 65 additional acres of prairie have been planted in the last two years on two properties bordering Little Darby Creek upstream from West Jefferson. The Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks drilled the prairie seeds for both projects to further restore prairie in the historical Darby Plains.
Work continues on one of our Darby Plains parcels, where 25 acres of old field will be cleared of invasive species ahead of tree planting this spring. We welcome volunteer involvement in these efforts as COVID restrictions allow. Please email Norah Mermis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Access to some of these sites is tricky; the fastest way into the Forrest Property involves
fording the Little Darby Creek when flow levels allow.
This Scaly Blazing Star (Liatris squarrosa), a potentially threatened species, now has more room to grow in this prairie patch since invasive shrubs encroaching on the edges have been removed.