The treeless landscape of the North American Great Plains prompted European explorers to call it the “Great American Desert”.
Why don’t trees grow in the Great Plains of North America?
Why? There are several reasons. The Great Plains region of lower Canada and the midwestern U.S. doesn’t have enough of a natural supply of water to support trees easily – except near streams and rivers. Stream and riverbeds in the Great Plains are occasionally lush with cottonwoods and willows . . .
But for the most part wild grasses dominate the Great Plains. Grasses thrive on less water – and they survive wildfires better than trees. Grasses readily come back after a fire because they sprout from roots that reach much deeper beneath the soil than grass blades do above the soil. On the other hand, most trees grow from points that are close to the bark. Once these “growing points” are damaged, the tree has little chance of surviving.
In past centuries, the grazing of bison also limited the growth of trees in the North American Great Plain. But today – with the removal or control of large grazing animals and widespread fire suppression – trees such as junipers are becoming a more common part of the Great Plains landscape.