Before Europeans first passed through the region in the sixteenth century, the Black Belt already possessed a distinctive landscape, filled with unique flora and fauna. The biological landscape was thousands of years old and had been developing since the end of the last ice age, some 13,000 years before. The Alabama Black Belt was not an unbroken prairie or forest as popularly supposed, but was a mosaic of environments shaped by soil type, available moisture, rivers and fire. Native Americans, settled along the river bottoms, were already a factor in the environment, particularly during the Mississippian stage, from AD 1050 to AD 1540. They established a number of towns, some sizeable, and cleared lowland cornfields. They also contributed to the natural burning cycle that was an important shaper of the Alabama environment. However, since statehood in 1819, Euro-American agricultural alterations to the natural landscape have been extensive, and today it bears only passing resemblance to its original appearance.
The Alabama Black Belt is composed of two main environments. The Black Belt proper, a geological region underlain by the white Selma Chalk, which is also called the Blackland prairie, and the river bottomland environment of the Alabama River and Tombigbee River systems.
The more familiar environment of the Black Belt is the river bottomlands. Historically, these bottoms were well watered, and filled with deep alluvial soils. The river bottoms would have been largely wooded, except in those areas devoted to Native American fields. Sloughs and backwaters would have been filled with enormous tupelo gums and even larger old-growth cypress, some 1,000 years old, with trunks 12 or more feet in diameter. Areas without standing water would have been filled with bottomland hardwoods - oaks, hickories, elms, sycamore, and sweetgum. While subject to the usual natural disasters that occasionally fell tracks of forest, much of this bottomland forest survived until the middle of the twentieth century when mechanized logging equipment allowed its harvest. Small areas of old growth bottomland hardwoods survive today, protected mostly by private landowners.
One of the most important and now-vanished plant communities throughout the Black Belt was the canebrake. These tracts of river cane (Arundinaria), covered huge portions of the sandy riverbanks and natural levees of the deep-soiled bottomlands and often extended into the uplands. In some areas, this native bamboo (not to be confused with large clumps of modern oriental bamboo) seemed to completely fill the river valleys. The expanse of the canebrake cannot be over-emphasized. Early travelers, such as William Bartram, Bernard Romans, and Benjamin Hawkins, consistently mentioned it as covering large areas. The river cane was particularly important to the Native Americans who used it in almost every aspect of their crafts and villages: They made cane arrows, blow guns, fish traps, hair ornaments, and the walls of their homes were made of woven cane covered in clay daub. The canebrakes were sources of game and served as a refuge in times of trouble. The area around Demopolis, the uplands of Marengo County, much of Greene County and portions of Perry County were so densely covered with cane that the region is still known as "The Canebrake." Of all the Black Belt environments, the canebrake is the closest to extinction. Settlers quickly discovered that cane lands were the best areas for corn and cotton production, and the canebrakes, along with the wildlife that once lived in the cane, such as the Bachman's Warbler, have been almost completely eliminated, cleared by generations of bottomland farming, grazing and fire suppression.
In the thin-soiled and dryer portions of the Black Belt underlain by chalk, large upland areas were covered in a grass and wildflower prairie. By the time Europeans began to settle the region, perhaps 1,000 square miles of Alabama was still tallgrass prairie. In the prairie area, lowlands were covered by forest, but as the lands rose away from the streams, and the black soil became thinner and dryer, the trees thinned and about 25 percent of the landscape was covered in open prairie. Even today, the chalky portion of the Black Belt has few pines, the thin calcareous soils being unsuitable for them, though pines are common in the red soils to the north and south. During the very early years of Anglo-American settlement, much of the chalky area was referred to as "timbered prairie land," or "natural meadows," or "bald prairie." Contrary to popular belief, the early Alabama farmers quickly recognized the fertility of the black soils and by the middle of the nineteenth century, the Black Belt became the heart of the Cotton Kingdom.
Today, it is estimated that less than one percent of the original Black Belt prairie remains. Alabama conservation agencies have mounted a campaign to bring some surviving portions into public hands to be managed as natural prairie. Such areas are carefully burned and sprayed to remove non-native species in an attempt to restore what was once a vast and diverse prairie eco-system. Some of the surviving rare plant prairie species include the White Lady's slipper, Three-flowered Hawthorn, Great Plains Ladies' tresses, and Nutmeg Hickory. The newly discovered Old Cahawba Rosinweed is found nowhere else in the world except the prairies around Old Cahawba. Among rare and declining animal species, the Northern Bobwhite and the Lark Sparrow inhabit the prairie's shrubby edges. The Loggerhead Shrike - a songbird that hunts like a small hawk - can be found in patches of remnant prairie and nearby agricultural lands.