I associate July with dazzling explosions of color. Sure, from fireworks displays, but more so from nature. To me, the best fireworks in the world don’t hold a Roman candle to a native grassland in mid-summer. During the day we’re treated to dozens of herbaceous species blooming at once, scores of native pollinator species busily feeding from them, and their avian predators feeding on the feasting insects. As the sun sets, the ambient hum of bumblebee wings is replaced with the squeaks and clicks of bats, and the strobing abdomens of fireflies light up the sky. Grasslands (interchangeably called meadows) are not only beautiful, but are important habitats in our region which are often misunderstood and overlooked. They are hard to ignore when blooming heavily from July through September, but the more you learn about them, the more exciting and attractive they are year-round.

A cheerful riot of color at a restored meadow patch in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Photo by Ryan Davis, on 7/5/21).

What is a Meadow?

A “meadow” is simply an open habitat dominated by herbaceous plant species. The term is very general and is used to describe any herbaceous vegetative community, from completely natural systems to agricultural fields, so “grassland” is a more accurate and scientifically descriptive name for the naturally occurring open, wildflower-laden habitats that people may be imagining when talking about meadows. Grasslands are wild ecosystems that are dominated by grasses and “forbs”, which are non-grass herbaceous plants (i.e. wildflowers). We conservationists will use the term meadow when interacting with the public for the same reason that we will often intentionally say “woods” rather than “forest”; the words “grassland” and “forest” can connote vast, unbroken landscapes of that habitat, while we want communities to care about these ecosystems everywhere, no matter the size.

Grasslands are widespread around the world, where they are present in conditions where trees and other woody plants can’t become established. Across the globe, these ecosystems are most commonly a result of climates where there is inadequate precipitation for woody species. In the eastern half of the United States there is enough rainfall to support forests, so grasslands are a result of frequent habitat disturbance, namely fire and soil saturation.

A restored meadow in Michaux State Forest, Pennsylvania. Though originally planted with over twenty species, the meadow is now dominated by wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) (Photo by Ryan Davis, 7/29/19).

In the eastern United States, a grassland won’t persist for very long if it isn’t subjected to some disturbance; unless something kills the trees that germinate among the herbaceous vegetation, ecological succession drives plant communities to become forests. Historically, wildfire and intentional burns by native peoples were common in many areas of the mid-Atlantic. Though many eastern tree species are adapted to fire and are resilient to lower-intensity burns when mature, most species are killed by fire when in the seedling stage. Areas that burned every couple of years effectively excluded trees and remained herbaceous. Substantial portions of the mid-Atlantic saw fire on a somewhat longer interval of every 5-15 years, resulting in savannah-like conditions where scattered trees became mature in an otherwise herbaceous-dominated area.

In addition to fire, water is another natural force that results in eastern meadows. There are many herbaceous species that are adapted to a wet landscape; they can survive in soils that are regularly saturated and their seeds can persist for years under water, waiting to spring up if the site begins to dry. Of course many woody plants can tolerate wet soil too, but few can handle several months of yearly saturation. Wetlands were much more common across the landscape prior to European colonization between the draining of wetter areas for agriculture and abundant beavers, whose dams altered hydrology across the landscape.

Whether kept herbaceous from fire, flooding, grazing, or a combination of disturbances, the plants found in a grassland are highly adapted to those conditions. One of the key adaptations which allow meadow species to survive disturbance events is the storing of energy in extensive root systems. In regions with deep bedrock some plants will grow roots ten feet or deeper, allowing them to survive surface fires and repeated grazing. This has some major implications for human interaction with meadows: they are superb at storing carbon in the soil and infiltrating stormwater, but take time to establish from seed.

Grassland habitats are very valuable for many wildlife species, including generalists (like deer) which can be found in most habitats, specialists which are only found in grasslands (such as bobolinks, meadowlarks, and grasshopper sparrows), and species which seasonally use meadows for reproduction or raising young (like turkeys and woodcock). In the spring meadows offer a flush of new vegetative growth, which makes excellent nesting habitat and highly palatable food for herbivores (including insects, the base of the terrestrial animal food web), in turn providing ample food for predators from parasitic wasps to northern harriers. Meadows in the summer and autumn are smorgasbords for pollinators and species that eat seeds, while providing ample cover from predators. In the winter, grasslands are still incredibly important to many species; the standing stems of herbaceous plants are where many insects overwinter, and provide excellent thermal cover through the cold months for larger species. Songbirds seem to particularly relish winter meadows as relatively sheltered areas to feast on seeds.

More Meadows!

Despite their value for ecosystem services and aesthetic appeal, meadows aren’t as common on our landscape as they used to be. Natural areas are no longer subject to disturbances, especially from fire, with the historical frequency that kept many areas open on our landscape. Even worse, when habitat patches do open up, say from an agricultural field being abandoned or a large canopy tree falling in a forest, these sunny spots now typically become dominated by a few invasive plant species. Because native fauna largely can’t consume non-native plant tissue, an explosion of invasive plants in an open area reduces biodiversity to the point where it is hardly functioning as habitat.

For the most part, our modern landscape is either forested, in agriculture, or developed. And though mature forests are fantastic for biodiversity and ecosystem services, there is a significant suite of grassland-dependent plant and animal species which need meadows on the landscape. Not surprisingly, North American grassland species of songbirds for example are being lost at a higher rate than those of any other habitat type besides wetlands.

Luckily meadows can be easy to integrate into the human landscape, where grasses and wildflowers seem to be more accepted than trees sometimes are. Backyard patches of Monarda and milkweed are far from the sprawling grasslands which are necessary to accommodate grass-nesting birds, but will absolutely harbor dozens of insect species which would be absent in a big, ecologically sterile lawn.

A meadow restoration area at a park in Londonderry Township, Pennsylvania is not only stunning but helps the municipality to reduce maintenance costs (Photo by Ryan Davis, 6/30/21).

You may not have a local meadow to enjoy this summer, but if you live in the mid-Atlantic you almost certainly live near a large lawn on the property of a park, school, or church which could be converted to native meadow habitat for you and many other species to enjoy in the future. And doing so would save the landowner a significant amount of money on mowing and other care over the years! At your own home, consider adding native plant species, no matter how small the space, as an easy way to help boost biodiversity. Restoring habitat isn’t always easy, but is always worth it.