Friday, April 29, 2011

Into (but out of) the Ozarks

Under the steel gray sky and undulating midstory of flowering dogwood, the recently burned forb-dominant understory looked neon green. As a great distraction from the potential flooding of southeast Missouri, I spent time in the Lincoln Hills, an area located in the southeast region of the Central Dissected Till Plains. Drive north from the ever-burgeoning St. Louis, and you'll end up here, a landscape largely dominated by farms (taking advantage of all that loess deposited during the last retreat of the glaciers) and miles of urban sprawl. But amid this rather bleak north Missouri landscape, there are 6,000 acres of land that have been under intensive fire management since the early 1980s. And it shows.

Spring green against blackened soil was never so green. The woodlands here have the structure and the prairie plant diversity of a typical (burned) Ozark landscape: tons of white oaks, Helianthus hirsutus, spring ephemerals like phlox and goldenseal, Camassia scilloides and hoary puccoon, bird's foot violets in the woods and on the glades. That's right, glades in North Missouri. My stunning (and huge) Geology of Missouri wall map shows that this area is overlain on Mississippian-Meramecian Formation, the same bedrock geology of Ste. Genevieve proper and parts of south St. Louis, but not a common bedrock in the Ozarks. So the Ozark woodlands in North Missouri aren't a true outlier to the Ozarks, per se, not dictated by the bedrock. They're different from the Ozarks, but they're somewhat the same as the Ozarks.

Due to the intensive fire management and a fire history that has spanned decades, the floral diversity and structure can rival some of the best sites in the Ozarks. Over half of the butterflies documented from Missouri have been found here, and approximately 30% of all known vascular plants in Missouri can be seen in the diverse natural communities of prairies, glades, sinkhole ponds, wetlands, and beautiful, beautiful dry mesic woodlands. The only remaining native intact prairie remnant outside of St. Louis -called the first prairie town- is here, maintained with fire since 1976.

Threatened by suburban encroachment, this Lincoln Hills gem harbors high deer numbers, though they're being managed as best as they can be. Deer particularly like the fleshy green leaves of Veratrum and the distinctive Tradescantia virginiana, the spiderwort common in the LaMotte sandstone country around Farmington; this spiderwort is different from the more common Ozark plant, T. ohiensis. T. virginiana flowers low on the plant and weeks earlier--similar to the St. Francois Mountains T. longipes. But the deer haven't obliterated the dogwoods here. Dogwoods galore in the hollows and midslope where fire behavior isn't as gnarly as on the dry ridgetops. One colleague asked if dogwoods were fire-dependent, considering there were so many large (and small) dogwoods here. In a landscape managed with fire, tree, shrub, forb, sedge and grass species sort themselves out through time. Say, over 30 years. Dogwoods are found where they belong, in the mesic conditions (in those deep loess soils), and, like in the Ozarks woods managed with fire, not so much on the dry rocky ridgetops.

In this 6,000 acres rests the largest state designated Natural Area north of the Missouri River. Considering that over 95% of north Missouri has been completely converted to agriculture or urban lands, it's remarkable and truly refreshing to see such a large, heterogenous landscape with great species richness across all biota being well maintained with such care and diligence. If you want to see what parts of the Ozarks looked like before the age of extraction began (and you're not in the Niangua Basin or in the scattered remnants of high quality, fire-managed sites that can be found throughout), go to the Lincoln Hills for 6,000 acres of it.


Nickelplate said...

What is that 3-petaled purple one? We took some pictures of those just this weekend, but did not know what they were.

Anonymous said...

And all thanks to the dedication and persevarence of the park naturalist Bruce Schuette who has tirelessly stood guard over the burn program for over 33 years. The resource and those who truly know the pulse of restored
woodland have Bruce to thank for the parkland character and floral displays along with all those dependent butterfly species. My hat off to Bruce....and I owe him a visit. Paul Nelson

Allison Vaughn said...

The purple petals flower is spiderwort. I'm pretty sure you have the same species where you are down there...