Your browser does not support JavaScript!
About DCR
State Parks
Soil and Water
Dam Safety and

The Natural Communities of Virginia
Classification of Ecological Community Groups

Second Approximation (Version 2.7)
Information current as of February, 2016

Table of Contents Table of Contents

Riverside Prairies

Communities in this group are globally and state-rare, consisting of temporarily flooded, sparse shrub and dense grassland vegetation of stabilized outcrop or boulder bars along the shores of major mountain and Piedmont rivers. In Virginia, most of the few known occurrences are located in the Potomac River gorge west of Washington, D.C. and along the James River near the Blue Ridge. Habitats supporting Riverside Prairies are elevated above mean water levels and are flood-scoured at return intervals ranging from greater than annually to about 15 years. Because of rockiness and limited alluvial deposition, soils are relatively shallow and site moisture conditions range from mesic to quite xeric.

The vegetation is a lush assemblage of warm-season grasses and forbs, with scattered, small trees almost always present. In the Potomac gorge, where the greatest environmental and floristic variation is found, prairies occurring on and just above the channel shelf often have a savanna-like growth of stunted green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), silky dogwood (Cornus amomum and Cornus obliqua), and other floodplain trees. Prairies occurring on a higher, less frequently flooded bedrock terrace contain upland trees such as white ash (Fraxinus americana), post oak (Quercus stellata), and pignut hickory (Carya glabra). Dominant grasses in both variants are usually big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum var. virgatum), with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium var. scoparium) also abundant on higher, drier terrace outcrops. Other generally characteristic plants include blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis var. australis), violet bush-clover (Lespedeza frutescens), whorled rosin weed (Silphium asteriscus var. trifoliatum), Culver's-root (Veronicastrum virginicum), freshwater cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), narrow-leaf mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), flattened spikerush (Eleocharis compressa var. compressa), veiny pea (Lathyrus venosus), and common golden-alexanders (Zizia aurea). Species characteristic of the Potomac River prairies include western sunflower (Helianthus occidentalis ssp. occidentalis), dense blazing star (Liatris spicata var. spicata), tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), and rough dropseed (Sporobolus clandestinus). Species characteristic of the James River prairies include Sampson's snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum var. psoralioides), northern obedient-plant (Physostegia virginiana ssp. virginiana), and American vetch (Vicia americana var. americana).

Riverside Prairies often occur in patch-mosaics with Riverside Outcrop Barrens, but are readily distinguished by their dense grassland vegetation (vs. sparse vegetation on the outcrops).

References: Fleming (2007), Fleming and Coulling (2001), Lea (2000), Rawinski et al . (1996).

Click on the images below to open a larger image in a separate window.

This link opens a new browser window to display a larger photo


Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and dense blazing star (Liatris spicata var. spicata , with purple flowers) in an elevated bedrock-terrace prairie just downstream from Great Falls, Fairfax County (Great Falls Park). Photo: Gary P. Fleming.
This link opens a new browser window to display a larger photo Small patches of Riverside Prairie are frequent on benches of the larger Potomac River bedrock terraces downstream from Great Falls, Fairfax County. Catastrophic flood-scouring removes or stunts woody vegetation, allowing the graminoid-dominated herbaceous vegetation to persist. Photo: Gary P. Fleming.
This link opens a new browser window to display a larger photo A large riverside prairie downstream from Great Falls, Fairfax County. Dominant grasses in this stand are big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) , indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and rough dropseed (Sporobolus clandestinus). Photo: Gary P. Fleming.
This link opens a new browser window to display a larger photo



A patch of riverside prairie on the Bedford County side of the James River Gorge (George Washington and Jefferson National Forests). Dominant plants in this stand are big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), wild blue indigo (Baptisia australis var. australis), and Sampson's snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum var. psoralioides). Photo: Tom Rawinski.

Riverside prairies have been sampled along the James River, the Potomac River, the Shenandoah River, and the Maury River (map). The recognition of three community types separated by substrate type, relative elevation, and moisture regime is based on the regional analysis conducted for the NCR vegetation mapping project (NatureServe in prep., Fleming 2007, Lea 2000) and needs further testing with a larger, more geographically comprehensive dataset. The fourth community type listed below is a unit of smaller, mountain-valley floodplains. Click on any highlighted CEGL code below to view the global USNVC description provided by NatureServe Explorer.

  • Fraxinus pennsylvanica / Andropogon gerardii - Panicum virgatum - Baptisia australis Wooded Herbaceous Vegetation
    Piedmont / Central Appalachian Bedrock Floodplain Prairie
    USNVC: = CEGL006283
    Global/State Ranks: G3/S2

  • Panicum virgatum - Andropogon gerardii Herbaceous Vegetation
    Ridge and Valley Gravel-Wash Riverside Prairie
    USNVC: CEGL006477
    Global/State Ranks: G2G3/S2

  • Fraxinus americana / Andropogon gerardii - Sorghastrum nutans - Schizachyrium scoparium - Pycnanthemum tenuifolium Herbaceous Vegetation
    Piedmont / Central Appalachian Riverside Outcrop Prairie
    USNVC: CEGL006478
    Global/State Ranks: G1/S1

  • Carex trichocarpa Herbaceous Vegetation
    Hairy-Fruited Sedge Riverside Prairie
    USNVC: CEGL006447
    Global/State Ranks: G4?/SU

back to top of page previous Ecological Group