By Don Corrigan
Missouri’s Bicentennial is just weeks away. The Show-Me State has a lot to celebrate since it gained statehood in 1821, but Carol Davit says the state would be wise to do a little inventory of natural losses over its last two centuries.
“Up until the time of statehood in 1821, 15 million acres of prairie enriched our beautiful state,” noted Davit, executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF). “Today, in only 200 years, that figure has been reduced to fewer than 60,000 acres, or less than half of one percent.
“Our New Year’s wish at the foundation is that more Missourians join us in supporting our mission to save as much remaining original prairie as possible, and to help us reconstruct more prairie habitat through plantings,” Davit said.
The Columbia-based Missouri Prairie Foundation recently posted a new video on its website to share the sheer beauty and diversity of Missouri’s prairies, and to help people understand the importance of prairies. Residents can get involved in helping protect what prairie remains, and can help MPF reconstruct prairie habitat through plantings.
Davit believes Missourians will understand the imperative to save prairie lands after visiting some of the beautiful locations around the state.
In Missouri, most original, unplowed prairie is in southwest corner of the state. However, there are prairie remnants at Cuivre River State Park outside of Troy about one hour from St. Louis. It is open and free to the public.
Shaw Nature Reserve, just west of St. Louis, does not contain original, unplowed prairie, but it does have an impressive prairie planting for which MPF was one of several financial contributors back in 1980. It has original glades, which are like dry prairies within a woodland setting. There is an entrance fee.
In Jefferson County, the Valley View Glades Natural Area is open and free to the public. St. Louisans can also venture farther and enjoy MPF’s original prairies. Linden’s Prairie in Lawrence County is close to I-44 near Mt. Vernon about a 3.5-hour drive from the 270/I-44 interchange. It is a breathtakingly beautiful prairie.
Managing Prairie Lands
“I think the most important accomplishments of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, as a 54-year-old land trust, have been to acquire and steward some of the most biologically rich, unplowed, original prairies left in the state,” Davit said.
“Our prairies evolved with natural disturbances and ecological processes such as fire,” explained Davit. “Purchasing land is not enough. To protect the rare and priceless elements of prairie ecosystems, they must be managed well. MPF’s prairie management is stellar. All MPF-owned prairies are open to the public to enjoy on foot.”
This is the time of year when MPF members and volunteers manage fires that are vital to the health of these natural wonderlands in Missouri and its plains.
Residents who wish to volunteer to help the prairie foundation with prescribed burns this winter can go to the website for information at https://moprairie.org. They can fill out a volunteer form to help out with the burns or to view them from the sidelines.
“Of course, our prescribed burns are completely weather-dependent, so we have only 24 hours notice if weather conditions will allow for a burn,” said Davit.. “Prairie evolved with fire. Here in Missouri, where the Eastern deciduous forest and the Great Plains meet, trees will encroach onto prairies without the fires.
“Fire helps control invasive, non-native plants like tall fescue,” explained Davit. “The end result, if fire is removed from the landscape, is that historically prairie areas will be lost, and overall native biodiversity will decline.”
The remaining prairies in Missouri in composite harbor about 800 native plant species, 450 native pollinating insects and thousands of invertebrates, according to Davit. Small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and grassland birds also find home on the prairie lands, not to mention billions of soil microbes, many of which are critical to soil health and plant vigor.
Push To Grow Native!
In addition to Missouri Prairie Foundation’s site protection work, the MPF also manages the now 20-year-old “Grow Native!” program for native plant marketing and education programs.
Since MPF acquired this program in 2012, “Grow Native!” has has been expanded exponentially, increasing the service area from beyond Missouri to also include southwestern Illinois, northern Arkansas, and eastern Kansas.
There are more than150 professional members of the program, who are native plant industry professionals. Benefits of their membership include continuing education events. One of the ways these services are offered is through annual conferences.
“This year, the conference was virtual and we opened it up to the general public to attend as well,” Davit explained. “Highlights were a keynote address by Dr. Sarah Baer about soil carbon in prairies, as well as presentations on native tree growth habits and their importance as host plants to many butterflies and moth larvae.”
There has been an increased interest in native landscaping by the general public and by municipalities interested in native plantings on city-owned landscapes. In recent years, the “Grow Native!” program has contributed significantly to the growth in interest and activities.
“We offer a tremendous array of free educational resources on our ‘Grow Native!’ website for all to enjoy, including a searchable database of more than 300 native plants available in the nursery trade,” Davit explained. “These educational resources inform the public of the many benefits of native plants, and, as is our intention, help increase demand for the native plant products and services of our professional members.”
Workshops and other in-person educational programs have been a mainstay of “Grow Native!” since its inception. This year with the COVID-19 pandemic, many events have shifted to online programming. Webinars and master classes have been attended by more than 3,000 people thus far.
“We have many more weekly online programs planned for at least the first quarter of 2021,” said Davit. “Our 2021 ‘Grow Native!’ Professional Member Conference will feature topics important to our professional members, to help them grow their businesses.”
Pandemic or not, the Missouri Prairie Foundation and “Grow Native!” are not slowing down. In fact, Missouri’s Bicentennial Year will mark a renewed commitment to saving as much remaining original prairie as possible and to nurturing an interest in native plants.