Drought on the prairie

By Carol / August 25, 2023 /

We are in the third, maybe fourth, year of drought here in Iowa. Capricious rains tease us into thinking the drought may be over, but there’s no denying the affect of too little water on my flower gardens. The drought is even taking a toll on my prairie.

Prairies are adapted to the Midwest weather and soil, whatever moisture they receive supplied by nature. But I’m seeing that even prairies may need more water than they get.

Drought-stressed Cup plant leaf

Drought-stressed Cup plant leaf

Plant damage – But why?

A few years ago, I started to see leaf damage on some Cup plants. Leaf edges curled and turned crispy brown. The plants were less attractive, but they still blossomed. I observed this happening, and wondered: Was the leaf damage a fungus? Why did it only affect cup plants? I didn’t connect the damage to the drought, at least in part because none of the other plants in the prairie were affected.

Drought-stressed Cup plant still blooms.

Drought-stressed Cup plants can still bloom.

Every year since I first noticed it, there has been more leaf damage on more Cup plants. This year the damage covered entire Cup plants, turning them a charred brown/black, looking as though a forest fire had swept through, leaving only a skeleton plant.

Drought-destroyed Cup plants

These cup plants didn’t survive the drought.


Finally, I contacted the county conservation office to get their thoughts. From them, I learned that Cup plant is a wetland species so the plants may be extra stressed because of the drought and incorrect soil type or planting location. They explained that Cup plants require a decent amount of consistent water in order to flourish.

I purchased a prairie seed mix to establish the prairie. It contained a wealth of seeds about which I knew almost nothing. The conservation office folks said it was good to have plants like Cup plant in the seed mix even though it is on the wetter end of the spectrum. They explained that it’s important to plant species that have different moisture requirements across a new planting to make sure every moisture/soil type is filled. They also pointed out something that I’ve seen time and again in my prairie: “Ecosystems are forever changing and almost always in flux.” 

The changing prairie ecosystem

My prairie is ‘new’ every year. Last year, for instance, the prairie produced an abundance of Butterfly milkweed. I loved these beautiful orange blossoms and the butterflies they attracted.

Monarch enjoying butterfly milkweed.

Showy Tick Trefoil

Showy Tick Trefoil bloomed in abundance this year.

This year, there were only a few Butterfly milkweeds. Instead, the prairie produced an abundance of Showy Tick Trefoil. Early on in my prairie’s life, I’d been delighted to see Rattlesnake Master plants. They flourished for 2-3 years and then disappeared. Turns out, this plant also requires consistent moisture.

The drought is affecting significant changes on my prairie. Maybe the drought is just sorting out the right plants for this area. Maybe when it rains regularly in future years (fingers crossed that it will!) the Cup plants and Rattlesnake Master will return. After all, the seeds produced all these years are still in the ground. Ultimately, the prairie will decide.

What changes have you seen in your gardens caused by changes in the weather?

Subscribe below for blog updates

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Leave a Comment