Prairie Described
At A Glance
At-A-Glance is a bulleted summary of the Prairie Described information. Complete text is linked to the left navigation bar and after each summary heading.

value Summary

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grassy hilltops

Cattle frolicking in a Sonoma County prairie pasture Photo by Jim Coleman.

Grasslands perform essential services necessary to support life. Grasslands contribute to human well-being and provide benefits that extend to local, regional, and global communities.

bulletFood and Agriculture: Humans owe the development of our civilization to grasslands, which are the source of species that are staples in our diet, and enabled the development of agriculture and domestication of livestock.

bulletCarbon Storage: Grasslands remove more carbon from the atmosphere than any other ecosystem in America. Grasses have an enormous capacity for carbon storage. Soil organic matter of coastal prairies is approximately 50% carbon.

bulletBiodiversity: California’s relatively intact grasslands are reservoirs of biodiversity containing about 40% of California’s native plant species.

bulletPasturage: Coastal prairie plants are considered excellent forage and continued to be so after reportedly over 100 years of grazing use. Average forage production can exceed 3,000 lbs/acre/year.

bulletWater Quality: Deep-rooted perennial grasses capture, filter and store water, and anchor the soil in place throughout the year long after annuals die. Native perennial grasses are used in Mediterranean vineyards and orchards to prevent erosion, suppress weeds, and maintain nutrients in the soil without competing for irrigation water during the drought of summer (Volaire, et al. 2009).

bulletAesthetics and Recreation: Grasslands provide sweeping views, gorgeous wildflower displays, and wonderful hiking opportunities.

bulletHabitat: Grasslands are open habitats that provide necessary food and shelter for many birds and animals.


definitions summary

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bullet“Prairie” is a French word derived from Latin word for “meadow.” It was first used in North America by French trappers in the 1600s to describe the great plains prairies of the Midwest.

bullet"Coastal prairies” mostly occur in areas where plants obtain some moisture from fog. The term “coastal prairie” was probably first used to describe California’s coastal grasslands in 1957.


distribution summary

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bulletCalifornia’s coastal prairies are distributed from southern California to Oregon usually within 100 km of the coast and under 350 m in elevation.

bulletThe main types of landforms associated with California coastal prairie are coastal marine terraces, coastal bluffs, hillside slopes, uplifted grassy bald hills and lowland grasslands. 

bulletCoastal prairies, like other types of grasslands, are sustained by disturbances that prevent invasion by shrubs and trees (e.g., fire, trampling, digging, wallowing and grazing).

bulletCalifornia tribes regularly burned coastal grasslands to improve the quality and quantity of grassland resources for their use. Indigenous burning increased the area of coastal prairies and other grasslands relative to scrub and forest habitats throughout California.


vegetation types summary

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bulletCoastal prairie community types are commonly named for the dominant plant, usually a grass species.

bulletThe dominant grass species are usually accompanied by a set of species, an “herbaceous alliance,” that grow under the same environmental conditions.

bulletExamples of names of coastal prairie vegetation types include California oat grass prairie (Danthonia californica Herbaceous Alliance) and tufted hairgrass meadows (Deschampsia cespitosa Herbaceous Alliance).


species summary

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grassy hilltops

Botanist working in coastal prairie near Freestone, Sonoma County. Photo by Jim Coleman.

bulletIn prairies, native wildflower species (forbs) outnumber grass species and account for most of the plant diversity.

bulletCoastal prairies in California support the highest plant diversity of any grassland in the United States.

bulletDuring surveys in Sonoma and Marin counties, botanists found 30-70 plant species in 10 m x 10 m plots. California coastal prairies support 80 endemic plants.

bulletCoastal prairie grasslands types (over 34 alliances) represent 30-50% of the diversity of vegetation types occurring in Sonoma and Marin counties.

bulletGrassland-obligates are species that may or may not occupy grasslands for their entire life, but depend on grassland resources for some aspect of their reproduction and survival. See individual plant and animal species accounts on this website for information regarding their dependence on grassland habitats.