Four miles west of Lime Springs off Jade Avenue and 50th Street, is Hayden Prairie State Preserve, home to more than 200 plant species, 20 types of butterflies and 46 different bird species. This 240-acre National Natural Landmark, five miles south of the Minnesota state line, is a rock star in the prairie community.
Hayden Prairie is the largest remnant prairie in the state outside of the Loess Hills. It has been the focus of more than 30 studies looking at its plant and insect communities and visited by countless school groups.
“It’s pretty impressive,” said Troy Anderson, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Upper Iowa Wildlife Unit responsible for managing the unique resource. “There are a lot of plants here that you don’t see in many places.”
What makes Hayden Prairie special is that its historic plant community is largely intact because the land hadn’t been farmed. It was owned by the same family who, for some 80 years, annually hayed the area. In 1945, Dr. Ada Hayden, botanist at Iowa State University, paid a visit and declared the area as a special place. It was acquired by the Iowa Conservation Commission later that same year and named for Dr. Hayden after she passed away in 1950.
On this early June morning, the prairie was in transition from spring plants just past peak bloom to summer plants just starting to flower.
Walking through the 40-acre section west of Ivy Avenue that was burned this spring, the ground goes from wet to humusy to dry. A large part of this area came up in a sea of blooming shooting star.
“It was all over,” Anderson said motioning with his hands while standing in the middle of the section where a common yellowthroat was singing nearby. Just as shooting star begins to fade, prairie smoke is beginning to approach its short window in bloom. Prairie smoke will add thin gray fibers hanging from each flower that, from a distance, resembles smoke. This area will undergo a lot of growth in the next month, he said.
Other unique prairie plants here are the rare western prairie fringed orchid, field sedge, small sundrops (little evening primrose), small white lady’s slipper, yellow lady’s slipper, tall cotton grass, slender sedge, valerian, oval milkweed, hoary puccoon, bird’s foot violet, Michigan lilies, wild rose, white wild indigo, cream wild indigo, golden Alexander, wild phlox and prairie blazing star, among others.
Bobolinks, meadowlarks, northern harriers, Henslow’s sparrows, smooth green snake, short eared owl, badgers, gophers, wild turkeys, pheasants, common yellowthroats, Dickcissels, upland sandpipers, grasshopper sparrows and more call the prairie home. The butterfly community includes silvery blue, Acadian hairstreak, great-spangled fritillary, eastern-tailed blue, pearl crescent along with lots of monarchs.
With all this diversity and it’s easy to see why Hayden Prairie is a big deal.
“It’s the plants and birds and insects out here that make it special,” Anderson said.
It is open to the public and does allow hunting. Hayden Prairie is bordered on three sides by roads with a small access off 50th Street on the north near the National Natural Landmark stone and kiosk.
Hayden Prairie was designated as a biological state preserve in 1968, which, among other things, means plants, berries, seeds, etc. cannot be picked, dug or otherwise removed.
Anderson has put together a committee of experts on insects, plants and grazing made up of current and retired DNR staff, a professor from nearby Luther College, and others to look at different management strategies to protect the prairie and prevent aspens and dogwoods from expanding their footprint here. The prairie is also being threatened by crown vetch, bromegrass and sweet clover.
“We’re looking at different ways to protect this unique place, and get input from different points of view,” Anderson said. “The main battle is with the woody vegetation.”