Plants & Flowers Along the Byway

The flat terrain and rich soil of the area around Grand Island provides a livelihood for farmers who plant corn, wheat, soybeans, and other row crops in this fertile flatland. Traveling northeast from Grand Island the view will change with the seasons and the distance. Close to Grand Island you witness crops being planted, harvested or safely stored in silos for the winter. Irrigation systems assist farmers in raising crops. Trees naturally grow by rivers and lakes along Highway 2 but they need tending in drier areas of the terrain. Trees have been planted near farmsteads and ranches for wind protection, to create wildlife habitat, and to provide aesthetic quality.

As you journey farther west, the flat terrain and loam become gently rolling hills with a healthy mix of crops and sandy-soil pastureland and native prairie. Northwest along Highway 2 past Anselmo, the pastures and native prairie become predominant and row crops are little more than a memory in the immense Sandhills area.

A variety of sand-tolerant plants began to take root in the shifting sands, holding the dunes in place. The sandy soil is low on nutrients necessary for crops and is vulnerable to wind and other weather conditions that cause considerable soil erosion. “The Sandhills prairie consists of approximately 700 plant species, of which only about 50 are not native – a remarkably small number for such an expansive area.” – Quoted from Jon Farrar in Birding Nebraska, page 89, January-February 2004, NEBRASKAland Magazine, Volume 83, Number 1, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission.

These plants have survived for centuries without being planted by man and provide grazing for livestock and a healthy barrier to protect the soil from the elements. The roots of grasses such as Indiangrass, little, big and sand bluestem, prairie sand reed, sand dropseed and sand lovegrass burrow into the sandy dunes and literally cover the dunes with a protective barrier from the elements.

Throughout the history of the Sandhills, droughts have occurred several times, resulting in exposure of the sands to the wind. “Blowouts” formed in the fragile landscape as a result of wind erosion. Blowouts are a natural part of the Sandhills ecosystem, creating habitat for the threatened and endangered blowout penstemon, a beautiful prairie plant with large bell-shaped, violet blooms. Blowout penstemon habitat is shrinking as ranchers carefully manage their lands in order to preserve dune stability so the lands do not revert back to a desert-like state.