Plains Ecological Zone

Although often overshadowed in the national, and even local, consciousness by the magnificent peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the eastern plains region of Colorado, which ranges in elevation from approximately 3,500 to 6,500 feet and accounts for roughly one third of the state’s total area, contains rich biodiversity and varied ecosystems. The eastern plains region has a steppe climate, which is marked by low precipitation (10-20 inches per year), long winters featuring temperatures dropping well below 0 degrees F, and hot summers.

It is common for the region to witness night time temperatures dropping below zero, as well as snow 

storms, well into May, and the plains occasionally sees snowfall and freezing temperatures as early as September. The region typically has flowering plants from early April through early-to-mid October.

As a result of the semi-arid climate that prevails over much of the plains, the region, outside of riparian zones, is dominated by the shortgrass prairie.  Grasses and flowering plants that grow in this arid region are cold hardy, sun loving, extremely drought tolerant, hail resistant, and normally well adapted to alkaline soils. However, the region’s riparian zones, most notably the 

areas along the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers, are home to more water loving plants and grasses, which sometimes lack the drought tolerance of those more common on the region’s short-grass prairie. It is also mostly in these riparian zones, as well as along depressions throughout the plains, that the region’s native trees are found.

– John Sciarcon

Read more about Blue Gramma (Bouteloua gracilis) Colorado's state grass.

Blue grama, Colorado’s state grass, is a deep-rooted, warm season bunch grass that is found throughout the plains’ shortgrass prairie. As a result of its deep roots, Blue grama is one of the most drought tolerant grasses on the Great Plains and is able to survive on less than ten inches of precipitation per year. Its striking seed heads emerge in late summer and persist through the winter. These seed heads can provide much needed nourishment to seed eating birds from late fall through early spring, when other sources of food are not as abundant as during the growing season.

According to the BAMONA (Butterflies and Moths of North America) project, Blue grama is a host plant to at least six different kinds of skippers. Additionally, in the winter months it provides habitat for ground nesting insects and cover for small animals.

As a result of its drought tolerance, aesthetic appeal, and deep roots that make it useful in erosion control, blue grama is becoming more common in residential yards along the Front Range. In such a setting, it is quite versatile and can play roles ranging from a stand-alone ornamental to a turf-grass replacement for non-native grasses, at least for full sun areas with low to medium foot traffic.

Although often overshadowed in the national, and even local, consciousness by the magnificent peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the eastern plains region of Colorado, which ranges in elevation from approximately 3,500 to 6,500 feet and accounts for roughly one third of the state’s total area, contains rich biodiversity and varied ecosystems. The eastern plains region has a steppe climate, which is marked by low precipitation (10-20 inches per year), long winters featuring temperatures dropping well below 0 degrees F, and hot summers.

It is common for the region to witness night time temperatures dropping below zero, as well as snow storms, well into May, and the plains occasionally sees snowfall and freezing temperatures as early as September. The region typically has flowering plants from early April through early-to-mid October.

As a result of the semi-arid climate that prevails over much of the plains, the region, outside of riparian zones, is dominated by the shortgrass prairie.  Grasses and flowering plants that grow in this arid region are cold hardy, sun loving, extremely drought tolerant, hail resistant, and normally well adapted to alkaline soils. However, the region’s riparian zones, most notably the areas along the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers, are home to more water loving plants and grasses, which sometimes lack the drought tolerance of those more common on the region’s short-grass prairie. It is also mostly in these riparian zones, as well as along depressions throughout the plains, that the region’s native trees are found.

– John Sciarcon

Read more about Blue Gramma (Bouteloua gracilis) Colorado's state grass.

Blue grama, Colorado’s state grass, is a deep-rooted, warm season bunch grass that is found throughout the plains’ shortgrass prairie. As a result of its deep roots, Blue grama is one of the most drought tolerant grasses on the Great Plains and is able to survive on less than ten inches of precipitation per year. Its striking seed heads emerge in late summer and persist through the winter. These seed heads can provide much needed nourishment to seed eating birds from late fall through early spring, when other sources of food are not as abundant as during the growing season.

According to the BAMONA (Butterflies and Moths of North America) project, Blue grama is a host plant to at least six different kinds of skippers. Additionally, in the winter months it provides habitat for ground nesting insects and cover for small animals.

As a result of its drought tolerance, aesthetic appeal, and deep roots that make it useful in erosion control, blue grama is becoming more common in residential yards along the Front Range. In such a setting, it is quite versatile and can play roles ranging from a stand-alone ornamental to a turf-grass replacement for non-native grasses, at least for full sun areas with low to medium foot traffic.

photo of pawnee national grasslands during summer storm

Some Interesting and Important Plains Plant Communities

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Plants of the Plains Region

Plant photos are in alphabetical order by scientific name.
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Rare Plants

Common Plants