Nature’s notebook

Rare, unspoiled Piedmont prairie wins protection

The Suther Prairie in Cabarrus County, blooming with atamasco lilies and Indian paintbrush. Photo courtesy Three Rivers Land Trust
Virginia spiderwort. Photo:Crystal Cockman

More than 10 years ago, in 2007, I visited a special place in Cabarrus County for the first time. It’s known as the Suther Prairie and has been privately owned by the Ritchie and Suther families for more than 200 years. The site may be the only remaining natural Piedmont prairie known to exist in North Carolina and is certainly one of only a few.

Now this unique site has been formally protected through a partnership among the landowners, Cabarrus County and the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program. The prairie itself covers only about 8 acres, but the drainage area to the site was also an important part of the purchase, which totaled about 78 acres.

Louis Suther, one of the property owners, says the Ritchie family came to the site in 1738 and settled with a land grant from the British crown. He says the settlers wrote their relatives back home that they had found a beautiful meadow similar to what they left in Switzerland, and were building a log cabin just above it. Although many people think most of the United States was forested before European settlement, there were vast expanses the Native Americans kept open as grasslands by burning.

The Suther Prairie is significant because the land there has never been worked or plowed. The Suthers have managed it for hay – and only that. As a result, wildflowers and grasses have been allowed to flourish. More than 250 plant species are found on the site. In springtime the prairie is beautiful with white atamasco lilies, orange Indian paintbrush, and purple Virginia spiderwort. It is also one a few sites in the state where the red Canada lily grows.

White atamasco lilies, found at the Suther Prairie in Cabarrus County. Photo: Crystal Cockman

Louis Suther has been a supervisor for Cabarrus County Soil and Water Conservation District for about 19 years. The family already had an easement on the creek protecting the riparian buffer, through the state Ecosystem Enhancement Program. The City of Mount Pleasant pumps water from Dutch Buffalo Creek, so it was important to the family that the water quality be protected on their farm.

Knowing the significance also of the prairie ecosystem, the family worked with the Cabarrus Soil and Water Conservation District to protect the site. Cabarrus County and the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund both provided funds to help purchase the site, with help from the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and Three Rivers Land Trust, formerly The LandTrust for Central North Carolina. (Disclosure: I work for the land trust.)

Cabarrus County has purchased the site, and it is being turned over to the state’s North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, which will manage it to protect the prairie and the diversity of species found there.

Today this special place looks the same as it did 150 years ago. And with the protection, it should look the same 150 years in the future.

The wildflower Indian paintbrush, found at Suther Prairie in Cabarrus County. Photo: Crystal Cockman