Finkbine Prairie is a chain of five small but moderately diverse native tallgrass prairie remnants on the west side of the University of Iowa campus between Iowa City and Coralville, Iowa. Most of these remnants are located on the hillside along the bicycle trail between Hawkins Drive and Mormon Trek. As you drive by on US 6, these prairies are clearly visible as open meadows on the hillside to the south.
Parking is available in the lot serving the softball field, accessible from Mormon Trek about a block south of US 6, just north of the railroad underpass. Alternately, parking is available in CRANDIC Park, off Rocky Shore Drive; the intersection of US 6, Rocky Shore and Hawkins is busy, but it has a crosswalk and the traffic lights have a pedestrian cycle. There is also a new parking lot off of US 6, serving the University's soccer fields; a wood-chip jogging trail connects this to the bike trail.
On the above map, the prairie remnants are shaded and numbered; in addition, the Sierra Club and the University have placed small interpretive signs along the bike trail marking remnants 2, 3 and 4. Visitors to these prairie remnants may also find the extensive system of wetlands on the north side of the bike trail to be interesting. These are dominated by cattails, but they also contain bullrushes and a small variety of sedges.
Starting from any of the parking lots, the most pleasant way to visit this chain of prairie remnants is to walk along the wood-chip jogging path that goes up the hill behind the prairie remnants, and then finish your visit with a stroll along the paved bike trail.
We recommend some care when walking into these prairie remnants. Blackberry and raspberry brambles are common, and there is some poison ivy. In addition, the prairie remnants can be damaged by trampling, particularly when the soil is wet. Because of this, we do not recommend that large groups of students be invited to walk into the prairie remnants except when the ground is frozen.
Remnant one, which you are unlikely to visit unless you are a golfer, is on a hillside across a low swale from hole number 14 in Finkbine Golf Course; this exposed hillside is well drained and exposed to the elements; as a result, it is dominated by little bluestem grass, a drought tolerant species.
Remnant two is located where the wood-chipped fitness trail meets the bike trail. The dominant grasses in this half-acre remnant are big bluestem and indian grass; the dominant forbs are tall coreopsis, tall bush clover and tall cinquefoil. The high quality part of this remnant is fairly small, and it is severely threatened by encroachment by sumac and trees, but there are scattered prairie plants to the east that suggest that this remnant was once much larger before sumac, wild cherry and box elder trees began to invade the area.
There is a huge bur oak just east of remnant two, and there are a number of bur oak saplings in the area. Scattered huge spreading bur oaks such as this were a feature of an ecosystem known as the tallgrass savannah. Unlike the other trees native to this area, bur oaks are fire resistant because of their thick corky bark; furthermore, bur oak saplings grow best in the open sun of a prairie and do poorly in a forest environment.
Remnant three is perhaps the most diverse of the Finkbine prairie remnants. This area of perhaps an acre is dominated by big bluestem grass on the higher elevations, while a healthy stand of little bluestem grass grows nearer the bike trail. Big bluestem prefers moist soil, while little bluestem prefers dry soil, so it is odd to find this growth pattern; the explanation lies in the nature of the soil. The steeper slopes of this prairie remnant are glacial till; a poorly sorted mixture of gravel, sand and clay that holds water fairly well. The lower part of the slope is a low sand dune formed by sand that blew off sandbars in clear creek or the Iowa River thousands of years ago.
Remnant three begins its annual wildflower show in the spring with spiderwort, and continues blooming all summer and into the fall. Tall bush clover, tall coreopsis, mountain mint, bergamot, tall cinqfoil and asters grow here in profusion.
Remnant four, the largest of the Finkbine prairie remnants, is dominated by a mixture of big bluestem and little bluestem grass; with tall coreopsis and bergamot as the most striking wildflowers. Remnant five, up the hill across Hawkins Drive, is similar, but with more indian grass and fewer wildflowers.
Above remnant five, on the hilltop behind Ronald McDonald House, is a severely degraded tallgrass savannah remnant. The large bur oaks are still standing, but the natural understory vegetation has been largely destroyed by years of neglect and misuse.
Iowa's tallgrass prairies are at their most spectacular in August and September. Earlier, there are some wildflowers, but the tall grasses lie dormant until the soil warms up in July. By august, big bluestem grass has come into its own, commonly reaching heights of eight feet, and the most spectacular of the prairie flowers begin to bloom.
In August and September, remnant three becomes a sea of purple with the blooming wild bergamot. The bright yellow blooms of tall coreopsis sail high above the bergamot. Mountain mint adds subdued flashes of white, while tall bush clover adds darker purples. Tall coreopsis is found throughout the degraded area between remnants 2 and 3, and tall cinquefoil also provides a flash of yellow.
A winter visit can also be interesting. The tall grass and flower stems frequently survive upright until spring, unless there is a heavy snowfall and when the ground is frozen, there is no reason not to take even large classes into the middle of the prairie. The dried seed heads of the mints, bergamot and mountain mint, have a very strong smell that is fun to demonstrate, and it can be fun to try to identify the plants from their dried winter remains.
We strongly recommend against picking the flowers, but winter visitors can pick grass stems and limited samples of dried seed heads without causing any problems.
The survival of Finkbine Prairie in the heart of a growing urban area is something of a surprise. Most of Iowa's prairies were destroyed by plowing over a century ago, but Finkbine Prairie is on a hillside that was too steep to plow. It was probably used as pasture, and particularly in remnant three, there is evidence of erosion problems that could have been started by overgrazing; fortunately, the prairie has recovered from this.
Later, after the University acquired the land north of the railroad, this area was part of a 9 hole golf course. Had this use persisted into the present, it is highly likely that some of these remnants, particularly remnant 4, would have been destroyed by the high levels of herbicides used on golf courses. Fortunately, this use of the land was discontinued before herbicide use on golf courses became a significant threat.
The two greatest threats to these prairie remnants today are careless land use planning and the natural succession from prairie to thicket to forest. When Hawkins Drive was put in, this almost certainly destroyed a large part of remnant five, and the pines planted along Hawkins drive, while pretty, destroyed additional parts of remnant five. With excellent intentions, the state highway department planted ``native grasses'' in the areas disturbed by the construction of Hawkins drive, but these are, in fact, exotic grasses from the southwest; these grasses are prairie grasses, but they are not varieties native to Iowa, and it remains to be seen how they will interact with the native prairie remnants.
Some of the early preservation efforts applied to these prairie remnants, while well intentioned, may have mixed results. Remnants 2 and 3, for example, have been augmented with seed and transplants of unknown origin. While these do not detract from the educational value of these remnants, the possible introduction of non-local plant varieties limits the research value of these remnants.
There is the potential to damage small prairie remnants such as these by overly intensive seed collection. Small quantities of seed have been harvested from remnants 1, 4 and 5 for use at Walnut Creek National Wildlife Refuge, and additional seed has been harvested for planting in adjacent areas after the power company cleared the trees from those areas. To responsably harvest seed from prairie remnants such as these, only a small fraction of the seed should be taken from any given area, for example, by taking only a few seed heads from each multi-headed flower stalk, or by harvesting grass seed using inefficient methods that guarantee that much of the seed stripped from any particular grass stem falls to the ground.
Today, these prairie remnants are designated as a natural area by the University, so there is hope that future developments will not cause additional damage. The University has removed some of the pines that were inappropriately planted in remnant 5, and the University, Sierra Club, and other interested groups have met to work on formulating a common vision for the future of these areas.
In a wild prairie, there would be little threat of succession to forest. Wildfires would kill most trees, with the exception of the hardyest of the bur oaks, and grazing elk and buffalo would kill many of the others. Without grazing and wildfires, we can only preserve the prairies by substituting controlled burns and regular brush cutting.
Project Green, the Sierra Club, and a number of volunteers have cut brush and carried out occasional burns in these prairie remnants. In addition, the University and the power company have occasionally come in and cut out brush and trees. With this continuing effort, we hope to preserve this remnant of the ecosystem that once dominated Iowa's landscape.
Most of finkbine Prairie is under the management of the University's Finkbine Golf Course; the groundskeeper can be reached at (319)335-9574 during business hours.
The map at the head of this section is based on an aerial photo provided by Al Stroh, of the University of Iowa Office of Planning and Administrative Services.
Work sessions are scheduled on Finkbine Prairie approximately once a month, weather permitting, usually on the afternoon of the last Sunday of the month, from around 1:30 to 3:00 PM. Those interested in volunteering for one of these work sessions should contact Doug Jones for details.