This webquest is intended for elementary students in grades four through six. Content areas are language arts, math, science and social studies. The subject matter is Native Americans and their dependence upon prairie plants for food, medicine and household goods.
Illinois Learning Standards addressed:
Native Americans and early Illinois settlers who lived on the prairie knew they had a supermarket of food, medicine, cosmetic items and household goods right in front of them. In this quest, you will be working in small groups to discover some of the uses of native prairie plants.
The Illinois Tallgrass Prairie
In the middle of North America, there is a huge area of land which was once covered with grasses and colorful wild flowers. The French called the rolling plains of grass “prairie” from the word for a meadow grazed by cattle. Prairies are a type of grassland, dominated by herbaceous plants and grasses.
The prairie extends from Canada to southern Texas and from western Indiana to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, covering 1.4 million square miles. As rainfall amounts decrease from east to west, different types of prairies result. The tallgrass prairie is found in the wetter eastern region, mixed-grass prairie in the central Great Plains, and shortgrass prairie near the rain shadow of the Rockies.
Illinois lies within an eastward extension of the prairie that is bordered by deciduous forests to the north, east and south. This part of the tallgrass prairie region, sometimes called the true prairie, is dominated by grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass, as well as other grasses and wildflowers (forbs). Some of these plants can reach a height of 10 feet or more.
Precipitation in the prairie can range from about 12.6” in the shortgrass prairie to 21.7” in the tallgrass prairie. The prairies were maintained in their natural state by climate, grazing and fire. Rainfall varies from year to year in the prairies, and a long dry period in the summer is normal. Every 30 years or so, a longer drought period may last for several years.
Before settlers moved west, the prairies were covered with herds of grazing animals such as buffalo, elk, deer and rabbits. These animals increased the growth in prairies by adding nitrogen to the soil through urine and feces, and by creating open areas for certain plants to grow.
Every 1-5 years, fire would spread across any given area of land. These fires moved rapidly across the land and did not penetrate the soil very far. The fires killed most of the saplings and removed the thatch of dead grasses, allowing early flowering spring species to grow. Today fire also helps control non-native herbaceous species that can invade prairie remnants.
Prairie plants have adapted to fires by growing underground storage structures and having their growth points slightly below the surface of the ground. The soil under a prairie is a dense mat of tangled roots, rhizomes, bulbs and rootstock. Two-thirds of most prairie plants are below the ground.
Today, very little of the original prairies survive (1-2 percent). Much of the land has been used for agriculture or urban development. Fires are also being suppressed, which has caused a decrease in genetic and biological plant diversity. Fortunately, there is a strong movement to educate people about prairies, and many states are rehabilitating what is left of their prairies and reintroducing native wildlife and plants.
This article has been adapted from “The Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois” and “North American Prairie.”
In this task, you will be working in small groups to discover some of the many uses of native plants found on the Illinois tallgrass prairie. You will need to fill your shopping cart with foods, household goods, and health and beauty aids (medicine and cosmetics).
Each item placed into the cart must be a prairie plant, and each plant must have the following:
Your group must have:
Group members may work together to compare ideas based on the factual information they have collected; or they may divide the task with assigned roles for each member. For example, one student may be responsible for researching food items, one student for medicinal plants, and one student may be in charge of household goods.
Once everyone understands their roles and researches their plants, they should come together as a group and discuss their findings. Group work should result in a consensus document or presentation.
Students should be creative in their presentation of material learned. Some possibilities include, but are not limited to:
Some possible resources include encyclopedias, periodicals, local nature centers and/or museums, interviews, websites and books (websites and books listed below).
Websites on prairie plants and their uses:
Books on prairie plants and their uses:
You should have a clear understanding of the grading criteria used for evaluation. The criteria will be determined by your teacher.
Conclusions offer the opportunity to engage in further analysis.