Prairie Plants Throughout Missouri: From the Glaciated Plains to Pine Woodlands

October 20, 2020 | Blog

Missouri Prairie Foundation September 2020 guided trips highlight widespread range of many prairie plants


Carol Davit small

By Carol Davit, Missouri Prairie Foundation Executive Director


Participants on the MPF tours to Missouri’s Old-Growth Pine Forest, Pawnee Prairie Natural Area and Helton Prairie Natural Area learned about diverse native grassland communities in many parts of the state.


Prairie communities once covered one-third of Missouri, or about 15 million acres across the state. Prairie plants, however, likely occurred over at least 70% of Missouri—not only in prairies, but also occurring on Ozark glades, open woodlands, sand communities, savannas, and other habitats.


Today, even though intact prairie communities have been reduced to one-half of 1% of their original extent in the state, and many other grassy habitats have been altered, prairie flora can still be found throughout Missouri in remnant communities. For example, MPF owns and manages 23 properties, mostly in southwestern Missouri on unglaciated soils and featuring original, unplowed prairie and rich prairie plant and animal life. MPF properties are open to the public to enjoy. 


To help call attention to the many other kinds of native grasslands that occur in Missouri, MPF organizes guided tours with partners to various grassland habitats. In September 2020, MPF offered a guided hikes to Missouri’s Old-Growth Pine Forest owned by the L-A-D Foundation, and to Pawnee Prairie Natural Area and Helton Prairie Natural Area—two original prairies in the Glaciated Plains in northern Missouri owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).


Mike Leahy, natural community ecologist for MDC and an MPF technical advisor, served as a guide for both tours. “Tallgrass prairie and other native grassland natural communities contribute to what makes Missouri the unique and special place on our exquisite planet that we all call home.”


On September 12, MPF members and other outdoor enthusiasts from across the state enjoyed a guided hike to learn about Missouri’s Old-Growth Pine Forest acquired by the L-A-D Foundation in 1996 and managed by Pioneer Forest LLC. This 41-acre tract is along Highway 19 on a ridge high above the Current River Valley, near Round Spring, features old-growth short-leaf pine. Neal Humke, Land Stewardship Coordinator with the L-A-D Foundation, co-led the hike and explained that Pioneer Forest is using management methods that protect larger and older short-leaf pine trees, while encouraging characteristic grasses, shrubs, and flowering plants on the pine woodland floor. 


As noted on the L-A-D website, in the late 1800s shortleaf pine was estimated to cover as many as 4.2 million acres of the Ozarks. In 1993 Dr. Richard Guyette, dendrochronologist with the University of Missouri-Columbia, sampled several large, old trees and estimated they began growing here in 1791. From Guyette’s other work in Missouri we know shortleaf pine can grow beyond 300 years. By the 1900s the large shortleaf pineries were being cut in southern Missouri. The large pines found here and the more extensive pine forests that surrounded it were home to the last recorded red-cockaded woodpecker in Missouri. Five birds were last observed in June of 1946 the same year that logging began.


Visit the L-A-D Foundation website to learn more about Missouri’s Virgin Pine (a.k.a Old-Growth) Forest.


On September 26, Leahy and MDC Wildlife Management Biologist Jesse Kamps guided an MPF tour to Pawnee Prairie Natural Area and Helton Prairie Natural Area, both in Harrison County in northern Missouri. These glaciated prairies contain mesic, deep soil prairies. Pawnee Prairie Natural Area is a 400-acre unplowed prairie and prairie planting over rolling, glaciated hills. Helton Prairie Natural Area is 20 acres of original, unplowed prairie within the 400-acre Wayne Helton Conservation Area, and one of few sites in the state to support the western prairie fringed orchid. 


Pawnee Prairie Natural Area is a stop along the Great Missouri Birding Trail. This area provides summer and winter sparrow habitat. Henslow’s, Grasshopper, Savanna, Field, Song, and Chipping Sparrows can be spotted in the summer, and White-crowned, White-throated, Dark-eyed Junco, Lincoln’s, Fox, and many others species can be seen here in the winter. Smith’s Longspur has also been documented here in winter. Other birds that frequent the area are Sedge Wren, Ring-necked Pheasant, Upland Sandpiper, Bell’s Vireo, Northern Bobwhite, and Willow Flycatcher. Raptors possible on the area include Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged, Swainson’s, and on occasion, a Red-shouldered Hawk. It is also a good place to see Merlin, American Kestrel, and the occasional Peregrine and Prairie Falcon. 



Header photo: MPF tour to short-leaf pine woodlands by Carol Davit

Donate to the Missouri Prairie Foundation

Related Stories

Saving Rare Prairies: MPF’s Edgar W. Schmidt Sand Prairie

Protecting and restoring rare, imperiled prairie habitats, like the sand savanna at MPF's Edgar W. Schmidt Sand Prairie, is at the core of our mission. This important endeavor involves documenting the history of a site, inventorying its plant and animal communities,...

Two lovely, stealthy, prairie wildflowers

Two lovely, stealthy, prairie wildflowers

In April, carpets of low-growing prairie wildflowers bloom, taking advantage of sunlight before taller grasses create shade. Among them are two plant species that, in addition to turning sunlight into plant food through good old-fashioned photosynthesis, supplement...