The Amana Landscape Lesson

Goal: Students will understand how landscape elements and climate and Indian communities shaped flora and fauna communities prior to settlement in the 1830s by farmers.


Landscape Lesson Landscape Lesson

The environment that early settlers in Iowa found resulted from a complex relationship between large environmental processes like glaciations, erosion, and fire; the region's continental climate; Indian communities' interactions with the environment; and a multitude of smaller relationships involving plants and animals.

The landscape of the Iowa River valley was shaped by glaciations and the river and its many small tributaries. The hills, wetlands, and prairies that resulted from these processes each supported different plant and animal communities that relied on the particular characteristics of each landform.

Upland prairies offered rich soil composed of loess and thousands of years of plant and animal life that has lived, died, and became part of the soil again. The tallgrass prairies that thrived on these soils for the last 11,000 years included plants such as big bluestem, pale purple cornflower, Indiangrass, and Junegrass, and various forbs. Oak woodlands also thrived in these uplands, taking advantage of the unfiltered sunlight and room to grow.

Switchgrass, native reed canarygrass, prairie cordgrass occupied wetter soils in the wet prairies in the river and in depressions in the upland prairies. Marshes and other wetlands offered habitat to other plant species, such as cattails, bulrushes, and arrowheads.

Prairies soils benefited from fire, decomposition, and a variety of burrowing animals that kept the soil from compacting. Another key to its health, microorganisms, occupied the root zone. Aiding in decomposition and other aspects of soil health, worms, ants, fungi, protozoa, amoebas, and others played a key role in ecosystem health.

Trees species varied according to soil conditions. Wetter areas near rivers supported forests of willows, silver maple, and cottonwood. Other, drier bottomlands offered ideal conditions for elms and black walnut. On the sloped hillsides, red oak, basswood, and sugar maples grew well, protected from the more intense upland prairie fires.

The ecosystems of the Iowa River valley were also shaped by the climate conditions that prevail in the region. High summer temperatures, low winter temperatures, a long growing season, and precipitation that falls mostly in the summer, and then often during the night, all created ideal growing conditions for a wide variety of plants.

Fire, either naturally occurring or set by local Indian communities, cleared underbrush in forests, reduced competition among trees, and renewed prairie plants. Fires occurred predominately on the upland prairies. The moist soils of the river valley limited the frequency and intensity of fires. Likewise, the slope of the hillsides discouraged the spread of more intense fires from above, giving the forests there some protection. On the upland prairies, fires burned intensely and swept quickly across the landscape. Prairie plants and oaks evolved with fire, thriving in the aftermath of the burns. Prairie plants relied on the fires for renewal and oaks' thick bark and ability to grow back after sustaining fire damage allowed them to take advantage of the open canopy and understory that fires created.

Animal species played an important role in these ecosystems. Grazers such as elk and deer, multitudes of birds, wolves, black bears, cougars, muskrats, beaver, and otters, as wells as insect species such as grasshoppers and ants, carried seed, fertilized the soil with their droppings, created local disturbances that allowed new plants to get established, and kept the soil aerated. Their actions and interactions helped maintain soil health and species diversity, creating an ecosystem with remarkable resilience.

Lesson Steps
  1. Introduce students to the Iowa River valley landscape at the Amana Colonies. Explain that the Community of True Inspiration came to the valley in 1854 and decided to move their community there almost immediately. They chose the valley because of the natural resources if offered. These resources existed in the valley because of a combination of natural processes and relationships, including glaciers, erosion, climate, and fire.

  2. Showing the students the topographic map of the valley, explain what the landscape would have looked like prior to settlement, from upland prairie and oak woodlands near where Homestead is today, to oak-walnut-black cherry- shagbark hickory-bitternut hazelnut forest along the hillsides on both sides of the valley, to the river bottoms forests, wetlands, and wet prairies in the river bottom. Point out that there is a terrace along the base of the hills that was formed by river erosion. Each of the Amana villages in the valley are located on this terrace, which is close to the bottomlands, but above the floodplain.

  3. Explain the forces that created those landscape features. The upland prairies, with their gently rolling hills, were formed by the pre-Illinoisan glaciers that moved down from the north between 2.5 million and 500,000 years ago. They smoothed the surface of the landscape, leaving behind debris scraped from lands in the north. After the glaciers receded, rivers carved out valleys that have gradually widened and deepened over time. Tributary streams have shaped the hillsides lining the valleys as they drain down to the larger rivers. The relative ease with which water moved across the land as it drained to the river created varied habitats, some with year-round standing water, others that drained quickly.

  4. Lead students in a discussion of what plants and animals would be found in each of the various habitats. Fill out a chart like the one below (this is just a partial list): 

    Habitat Native plants Native animals
    River/creeks Alongside rivers and on sandbars: peachleaf willow, black willow, silver maple, cottonwood, river birch Along riverbanks and in the water: muskrat, beaver, river otter, mink; bigmouth buffalo (fish), bigmouth shiner, bluegill, Graham's crayfish snake, red-sided garter snake, bald eagles, osprey, catfish
    Wetlands and wet prairies Slough grass, swamp milkweed, wild millet, broadleaf arrowhead, Straw-colored nutsedge, bulrush, buttonbush, switchgrass, bluejoint, reed canary grass, sedges, prairie cordgrass, cattails, sawtooth sunflower, compassplant muskrat, beaver, river otter, mink, American coot, great blue heron, killdeer, mallard duck, sora, trumpeter swan, tree swallow, dragonflies, butterflies
    Mesic Prairie Big bluestem, Indiangrass, little bluestem, June grass, needle grass, sedges, prairie violets, shootingstar, prairie phlox, prairie ragwort, pale purple coneflower, blackeyed Susan, butterfly milkweed, prairie clover, sunflowers, asters Killdeer, prairie chickens, orchard oriole, indigo bunting, eastern bluebird, whip-poor-will, butterflies, grasshoppers, badgers, prairie voles, shrews, deer mice, deer, elk
    Bottomland forest Silver maple, cottonwood, black walnut, American elm, slippery elm, green ash, box elder, gooseberry, wild grape Butterflies, wild turkey, black bears, cougars, gray foxes, coyotes, deer
    Hillside forest Red oak, basswood, sugar maple, Wild turkey, hawks, owls, woodpeckers, nuthatches, butterflies, black bears, cougars, gray foxes, coyotes, deer
    Oak woodlands Bur oaks, black oak, black cherry, black walnut, basswood, shagbark hickory, bitternut hickory, Wild turkey, hawks, owls, woodpeckers, nuthatches, passenger pigeons, butterflies, black bears, cougars, gray foxes, coyotes, deer
  5. Explain to the students that they are going to make a model of a cross section of the valley. Using the topographical map and hillshade color map as a guide, they will form the prairie lands, the steep hillsides on the south side of the river valley, the river bottom, and the hills on the north side of the valley. For reference:

    Homestead elevation – 863 feet
    South Amana elevation – 778 feet
    West Amana elevation – 778 feet
    High Amana elevation – 768 feet
    Middle Amana elevation – 741 feet
    Main Amana – 712 feet
    East Amana – 755 feet
    Upper South Amana – 879 feet
    Iowa River – about midway down the valley in the Amana Colonies – 710 feet
    Highest points above Middle Amana, High Amana, and West Amana – 850 -900 feet
    High points south of Homestead and South Amana – 850-900 feet

  6. Students will paint the model using color to differentiate between the different habitat types – upland prairies and woodlands, hillside forests, river bottom forests, wetlands, and wet prairies.

  7. Using images they find, or that the teacher provides (see Materials), attached to toothpicks, students will place them in their appropriate habitat.

  8. Students will explain, either with a descriptive paragraph or via a verbal presentation, what they have created and compare and contrast the different ecosystems.
Lesson Extensions
  1. Students could create models of a portion of the landscape – the teacher will need to set a scale – and then the class can put the components together into a larger model.

  2. Older students can do research online and in natural history books to find native plants and animals.

  3. Students, individually or as a group, could create a Venn diagram of the species found in two of the ecosystems.

  4. Students could look up the scientific names of the plants and animals they use in the model.

  5. Students could create a website or digital presentation of "An Ecological Tour through the Amana Colonies" with tabs or pages for each of the different types of habitats: wetland, river, forest, prairie, etc. The pages could describe the habitat, the plants and animals that live there, and the forces that shaped it (such as fire or glaciers).
Additional Resources

Iowa Association of Naturalists pamphlet series (

Mark Müller, Prairie in Your Pocket: A Guide to Plants of the Tallgrass Prairie
(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000)

Mark Müller, Wetlands in Your Pocket: A Guide to Common Plants and Animals of Midwestern Wetlands
(Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2005)

Mark Müller, Woodland in Your Pocket: A Guide to Common Woodland Plants of the Midwest
(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002)

Cornelia F. Mutel, The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa
(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008)

Jean C. Prior, Landforms of Iowa
(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press or the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 1991)

Iowa CORE Standards, Essential Concepts, and Essential Skills addressed by this lesson

K-5 Writing

#2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

6-12 Writing

#2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

#7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

#8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while

#10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

K-2 Science as Inquiry

Ask questions about objects, organisms, and events in the environment. Plan and conduct simple investigations.

6-8 Science as Inquiry

Understand that different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations.

Use evidence to develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models.

3-5 Science as Inquiry

Identify and generate questions that can be answered through scientific investigations.

Recognize that scientists perform different types of investigations.

Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.

K-2 Life Science as Inquiry

Understand and apply knowledge of the characteristics of living things and how living things are both similar to and different from each other and from non-living things.

Understand and apply knowledge of the basic needs of plants and animals and how they interact with each other and their physical environment.

Understand and apply knowledge of ways to help take care of the environment.

3-5 Life Science as Inquiry

Understand and apply knowledge of organisms and their environments, including structures, characteristics, and adaptations of organisms that allow them to function and survive within their habitats; how individual organisms are influenced by internal and external factors; the relationships among living and non-living factors in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Understand and apply knowledge of environmental stewardship.

6-8 Life Science as Inquiry

Understand and apply knowledge of interdependency of organisms, changes in environmental conditions, and survival of individuals and species and the cycling of matter and energy in ecosystems.

9-12 Life Science as Inquiry

Understand and apply knowledge of the interdependence of organisms.

K-2 Geography

Understand how geographic processes and human actions modify the environment and how the environment affects humans.

3-5 and 6-8 Geography

Understand how physical processes and human actions modify the environment and how the environment affects humans.

9-12 Geography

Understand how human actions modify the environment and how the environment affects humans.

Understand relationships between soil, climate, plant and animal life affect the distributions of ecosystems.

K-2 History

Understand relationship between geography and historical events.

3-5 History

Understand the effects of geographic factors on historical events.

6-8 History

Understand the effects of geographic factors on historical events.