Dry-Mesic Prairie – Prairies occur in temperate climates (such as Kansas) with grasses – rather than trees – as the dominant vegetation type. A "mesic" prairie is one that has good drainage and soil moisture during the growing season and is therefore more endangered, since it is most likely to be converted to agriculture. An example of this is the former Dry-Mesic Prairie near the Arboretum's main entrance and around Margaret's Pond, which has been converted to the Arboretum's main gardens and proven to be an ideal environment.
Dry Oak Savanna – A "savanna" is an area of widely spaced trees surrounded by prairie. At the Arboretum, the Dry Oak Savanna lies near the picnic shelter and east end of the asphalt trail. Because burning, which would be necessary to maintain the prairie portion of this ecosystem, is no longer allowed, the prairie grasses are being crowded out by shrubs and trees. This ecosystem can be thought of as a transition between the prairie and the forest above Wolf Creek.
Dry Oak-Hickory – The Dry Oak-Hickory forest is a typical ecosystem for this area, as well as much of eastern and central North America. At the Arboretum, it is found on the north side of Wolf Creek above the floodplain and also the higher areas south of Wolf Creek where the soil is drier than in the floodplain. Post Oak, Black Oak and Shagbark Hickory, the dominant trees here, are examples of "deciduous" trees, meaning they lose their leaves in the fall and winter. By contrast, "evergreen" trees, such as cedar, pine and spruce, stay green year-round. The Eastern Red Cedar is the only evergreen tree native to Kansas.
Mesic Oak-History Forest – The Mesic Oak-Hickory ecosystem is found along the lower, south side of the Wolf Creek floodplain, and because it lies on a slope that faces north, it receives less sunlight and has cooler, moister soil. This deep, moist soil supports the largest trees in the Arboretum, such as Red Oak, Shagbark Hickory and White Ash, and the presence of Paw Paw and Leatherwood shows some resemblance to the Ozarks. The rich soil also supports an abundance of spring wildflowers. This is the most unique and fragile ecosystem at the Arboretum.
Riparian Woodland – This ecosystem lies in the floodplain created by Wolf Creek, which flows through the Arboretum. Floodplains are low areas next to streams and rivers that are created as the moving water erodes sideways or "meanders". Water moves fastest on the outside of the meanders (curves), which causes erosion and steep banks. On the inside of the curves, slower moving water drops sediments that cause sand, mud and gravel bars. The floodplain will experience flooding in times of extremely heavy rainfall or runoff. Here you will see moisture-loving trees such as the Sycamore and Eastern Cottonwood.
Wooded Draws – This ecosystem occurs south of Wolf Creek. A "draw" is a gully or drainage basin that carries water into a river or stream – such as Wolf Creek – during periods of heavy rainfall or runoff. There is a variety of vegetation growing within these draws, such as Rough Leaf Dogwood, Red Elm, Red Cedar and some prairie remnants, including even the Prickly Pear cactus. Also nearby are the limestone bluffs that are a major feature along the south side of Wolf Creek. Limestone lies beneath the soil throughout our region and was formed from the remains of marine life which fell to the bottom of a vast sea that covered this area around 300 million years ago.
Dry Wooded Swales – This ecosystem is similar in appearance to the Wooded Draws, except the soil is drier and shallower. A "swale" is a low-lying area or depression. The Dry Wooded Swales area occurs to the west of the Arboretum gardens north of Wolf Creek, and on the south side of Wolf Creek near the Wooded Draws. As we think about the Arboretum's ecosystems, it's important to note that much of the Arboretum was once prairie. Prairies are maintained by fire – either natural, such as lightning, or burning by man. While this may seem odd, fire on a true prairie removes unwanted vegetation – such as woody shrubs and even trees – that crowd out the prairie grasses.
Old Field – This ecosystem to the south of Wolf Creek is a former prairie which was used by humans for agriculture and grazing. Currently, there is a 10-year restoration project to return this area to prairie, as it existed before people settled here. Before human settlement, prairies existed across much of central North America, and featured grasses as the dominant vegetation because there wasn't enough rainfall to support the forests found in the eastern part of the continent. Currently, only 1% of the original prairie still exists, although there are several efforts to preserve and restore prairie remnants, such as the one at the Arboretum.