Prairie, derived from an old French word praierie, meaning meadow, is the name given to the central grasslands of North America by early European settlers. In Mexico, central grasslands are referred to as pastizales, meaning pasture.
Large expanses of prairie occur on level to rolling interior plains where there is low precipitation (semi-arid), with summers usually hot and winters freezing cold.
Prairie vegetation is maintained by grazing, fire, drought and low temperatures. Although grasses dominate, lichens, mosses, forbs and low- to mid-size shrubs also comprise prairie vegetation. Taller shrubs and trees, mostly willows and poplars, including aspen and cottonwoods, are found in depressions and valleys where there is sufficient moisture and nutrients.
Prairie, like other temperate grasslands, is among the most productive and diverse of earth’s terrestrial ecosystems.