Grass: the Essence of Cowpens
OverviewWhen we think of prairies, we often think of the Midwest — the short-grass or tall-grass prairies, and the association of soil, grass and wildlife. The Southeast, on the other hand, has often been pictured as a great forest. Just as there were great expanses of forest in the Southeast, there were areas of interspersed grassland, forming a mosaic of forest, field and water.
To present to students the importance of native grasses and the grasslands that were the essence of the landscape at the site of the Battle of Cowpens.
When we think of prairies, we often think of the Midwest — the short-grass or tall-grass prairies, and the association of soil, grass and wildlife. The Southeast, on the other hand, has often been pictured as a great forest. One could even suppose that a squirrel could have started at the Atlantic and traveled from tree-top to tree-top all the way to the Mississippi River, taking perhaps a lifetime to do so. Certainly, there were vast stretches of forest and huge trees, towering tall and limiting sunlight reaching the forest floor. This huge over-story often crowded out under-story plants, creating a park-like atmosphere.
Just as there were great expanses of forest in the Southeast, there were areas of interspersed grassland, forming a mosaic of forest, field and water. Grasslands were created through some disturbance to the land — sometimes natural ones, such as a storm that blew down trees. Yet such grasslands were often temporary: Pioneering species of plants would start growing, one species succeeding another, until there was a forest again.
Native-Americans used fire as a tool to create such grasslands in the Southeast, often known as Eastern or Piedmont Prairies. To limit the growth of shrubs and sometimes trees, native peoples periodically burned the land. The prairies they created brought the Woods Bison, deer and other wildlife, to provide for subsistence hunting. Much of the area south of Charlotte, North Carolina, extending into South Carolina was thought to be a vast Eastern Prairie. The Woods Bison is extinct in that area today, but one will find plant life indigenous to the Midwest.
A number of botanists believe that the site of the Battle of Cowpens was prairie-related, created by Native-American cultural use of fire. Although eastern prairies to the northeast of Cowpens were primarily grasslands, the land at Cowpens is grassland dotted with trees, or a savanna. How does one explain the difference?
It has to do with the types of soil. The soil south of Charlotte, classified as Iredell soil, is often shallow and not very permeable. It developed large cracks when dry. Shrubs and certain trees have more difficulty getting a start in such soil and, traditionally, periodic burning helped keep it so.
At Cowpens, the soil was deeper and more conducive to tree growth. The landscape was described as follows: “The open woods were free from underbrush. The terrain remained similar all the way to the Broad River, six miles to the rear of the American lines; it offered no shield to a retreating force pursued by Cavalry.” (Wickwire and Wickwire, 1970). Rostlund (1957) studied fire and prairie in the Southeast and concluded that the “open, park-like appearance of the woodlands, undoubtedly the most common type of forest in the ancient Southeast, was mostly the work of man.” At Cowpens, the colonial cattle industry substituted for burning and kept the land in the successional grassland stage. Today, there are remnants of such landscapes, sometimes kept clear in an earlier era by agricultural use. Agriculture has helped keep the Cowpens site similar to its historic appearance, although it has caused erosion.
Because perennial herbaceous plant communities contained diversity, insects could not move as easily from plant to plant as in the monoculture of modern agriculture (for example, insects can move easily from cornstalk to cornstalk). A food chain developed involving insects, mammals, birds and herbaceous plants. Historically, there was a balance or homeostasis between plant and animal life, predator and prey. Some were producers of energy, others consumers, and others, producers and consumers.
Students can learn much from savanna conditions and the web of life important to their survival— relationships of soil, herbaceous plants, wildflowers, insects, trees, and mammals. The following activities address these relationships and the importance of such relationships to ecosystems today.
Have students define the following vocabulary words (as they relate to the background information) by matching each with their definition. Print the Grassland Ecology worksheet.
2. After reviewing the background material, have students write an imaginary nature journal in which they describe an eastern prairie or prairie park-like conditions found at Cowpens National Battlefield. Have them use each of the vocabulary words listed above in correct context in the journal. (As an alternative, have students simply write sentences using each of these words in context of the study on grasslands.)
1. Certain grasses, wildflowers and wildlife are associated with grassland/prairies. Walk the battlefield trail and identify the following (Note: certain plants can be identified only by season or identified more easily by season. Early autumn is usually a good season to identify grasses. Use a guidebook to grasses, trees, shrubs, or wildflowers for help in identification.)
Rabbit Tobacco (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium L.)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta L.)
Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana L.)
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana L.)
Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)
Aster (Aster sp.)
Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus L.)
Butterfly-weed (Aselepias tuberosa ssp. Tuberosa L.)
Prairie Three-awn Grass (Aristida oligantha)
Bigtop Love Grass (Eragrostis hirsuta)
Yellow Star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta var. hirsuta)
Post Oak (Quercus stellata)
Black Oak (Quercus velutina)
Black Cherry (Prunus serotia var. serotina)
Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)
Venus looking-glass (Triodanis perfoliata)
Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)
Common-smooth sumac (Rhus glabra L.)
Little bluestem (Andropogon sericatus)
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Purple Top (Tridens Flavus)
2. Birds associated with Piedmont Prairie landscapes include (1) the eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna), (2) the field sparrow (Spizella pusilla), and (3) the grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum). Bring binoculars to observe and record the kinds of birds observed. Other birds common to Cowpens National Battlefield include crows, hawks (certain times of the year), summer tanagers, wild turkeys, Carolina Wrens, pileated woodpeckers, the eastern bluebird, etc. (Copies of the Cowpens National Battlefield Bird Checklist are available at the Visitor Center desk – one per group, please. Copies are permissible.)
3. Insects and arachnids associated with Piedmont Prairie landscapes include (1) spiders (Arachnids) including orb-weavers, sheet-web spiders and wolf spiders; (2) grass-hoppers; (3) crickets; (4) moths, skippers and butterflies; (5) beetles; (6) bees and wasps; (7) and lightning bugs (fireflies). Using a guidebook on insects and spiders, observe and record a count of populations. Record what herbaceous plant each is associated with, if possible. Observe and record habits, distinguishing physical features, movement, predator-prey relationships, etc
4. Mammals associated with Piedmont Prairie landscapes include, historically, wolves, bison, elk, mice, voles and shrews. The Woods Bison (Buffalo), as distinguished from the Plains Bison and others, inhabited the Eastern part of the North American continent. Wolves, both gray and red, also inhabited the region. Elk, now associated with the western United States, were also present. Using a guidebook on mammals, observe and record a count of populations of such mammals as squirrels, rabbits, etc. Present, but rarely seen, are deer, groundhogs, foxes and mice. Possibly, coyotes frequent the park. Observe and record habits, distinguishing physical features, movement, feeding and predator-prey relationships. Top
Complete a mural showing herbaceous plants, spiders, insects and mammals in an historical prairie landscape setting. Discuss and chart the food chain in a Piedmont Prairie setting. What would be the result if one of the links were missing? Chart the following plants and animals;: earthworms; grasshoppers and other insects; spiders; rabbits; soil; sun (light energy); deer; elk; buffalo (bison); mice, voles, and shrews; foxes, squirrels, wolves; herbaceous plants (grasses, shrubs, fruit and seeds). Complete a journal of your visit to Cowpens. Use the vocabulary list above for those plants and animals you observe.
- The student will explain the biology and importance of native grasses.
- The student will explain how native grasses were perpetuated and how soils influenced such landscapes.
- The student will identify native grasses historically common to Cowpens in contrast to introduced species.
- The student will describe the ecology of grasslands and examine their associated web of life, including mammals, insects, wildflowers, and soils.
- The student will use a primary source to form conclusions about native grasses in the Cowpens site and area.