A cold wind blows across an ancestral plain. A horse-mounted nomad stares off into the setting sun surrounded by a sea of grass. This is his heritage, this is where his heart feels free, on the great expanse of the steppe that stretches for hundreds of miles in each direction. The question unanswered: Is this a Mongolian nomad, a Gaucho of Patagonia, the stoic Basotho herdsman, or the lonesome cowboy of the American West? These steppe regions have so many similarities in culture, lifestyle, and the plants. Denver Botanic Gardens is in a unique position to study these regions and look deeper into what makes a steppe. There are many factors that create these similarities and yet each region has its own unique identity.
At the Gardens, we have a list of criteria that we use to define a steppe region. These criteria help us to understand these regions and how they relate to our North American Steppe. An important thing to understand is that a steppe is a cline between other habitat types. These areas of the world that are transitions and border more defined ecological zones by nature make firm definition and delineation challenging. Let’s look at some of the factors that we use to define the steppe.
The great steppe regions are a hotspot for diversity as well as an incredibly important habitat for human existence. These are the fertile grasslands that are home to the majority of agricultural crop lands. Without the steppe we would not be able to feed ourselves as a species.
The dictionary defines the steppe as a vast, treeless plain. That is a great simplification. Steppe regions exist outside of the tropics, which means that there are four distinct seasons. That leads us to one of the most important characteristics of the steppe, that there is an extreme in temperatures from summer to winter. Now not all areas north or south of the lines of tropics are steppe, so we need to continue our understanding. Steppe mostly exists in the rainshadow of great mountain ranges. This is very pervasive and true for the North and South American steppe. A rainshadow is what occurs when water evaporates and accumulates in clouds and is then released in the mountains, which creates aridity on the leeward side of the mountains. This cold, arid plain is steppe. Being in such an arid landscape makes native tree growth very unlikely, hence the dominance of the grasses and herbaceous forbs. Cold, arid, rainshadowed and treeless plain is a realistic summary of steppe. When defined by those parameters it sounds like a pretty tough, even unwelcoming, habitat to understand. But it can’t be all bad, can it?
The great steppe regions are a hotspot for diversity as well as an incredibly important habitat for human existence. These are the fertile grasslands that are home to the majority of agricultural crop lands. Without the steppe we would not be able to feed ourselves as a species. In the days before roads, cars, planes, and trains the steppes were where and how humans migrated across the continents. The great example of this is the silk road, where spices, textiles and other goods were exchanged for thousands of years. Denver, Colorado is much like one of these ancient silk road cities. Denver is at the base of the Southern Rocky Mountains at the confluence of some major watercourses. Denver has been the hub of trade and supplies for gold and silver rushes, it has been a crossroads for driving herds of animals, and at one time was considered the cut flower capital of the world. These steppe regions are uniquely suited to human life—they have plenty of bright sunshine, fresh water from streams and rivers, wide open vistas to see for miles and miles with the beauty and wonder of the mountains always close at hand. Denver sunsets are legendary because of the mountains.
Having traveled to and studied the plants, places and wonderful cultures of steppe on five continents, there is still no place like Denver. These steppes create a real sense of place and we as a species owe it to ourselves to understand just how important they are. To protect the diversity of the flora and fauna, water and energy sources is to protect and conserve ourselves. These wonderous steppes tie our collective stories together. So maybe instead of saying “Denver and the steppes,” we should really say Denver is the steppe.
Mike Bone is the Curator of Steppe Collections at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
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