Natural Antiques

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 1, 2010

different natural communities that grow on and around them. Certain plant and animal communities evolve to fit an area's geology, so by knowing what geology is prominent in a region, biologists can expect to find certain specific natural communities there.

In the St. Francois Mountains, on the rockiest, most exposed sites, glade communities persist. Glades are dominated by herbaceous plants-grasses and forbs-adapted to hot, dry conditions. You may see glade onion blooming purple and cream wild indigo in the spring, followed by the endangered Mead's milkweed, which displays a green flower in early summer. The St. Francois Mountain Natural Area is home to one of the largest populations in the world of this rare milkweed, which also grows on prairies in southwest and north Missouri.

Blazing stars, pencil flowers and coreopsis dress the glade openings throughout the summer. In autumn, grasses, such as little bluestem, big bluestem, Indian grass and various panic grasses, put on their yellow and orange foliage display.

Collared lizards, just as colorful as the wildflowers, sun themselves on the exposed rhyolite outcrops. These openings provide impressive vistas of wildness. Wildcat Mountain, Church Mountain, Wiemer Hill and Proffit Mountain-all appear void of human intervention.

Savannas surround the glades. Dwarfed blackjack and post oak trees with wide spreading branches barely surpass the height of the igneous boulders in this dry, rocky ecosystem. Short-leaf pine is distributed unevenly throughout the savannas and forests but is not as common as it used to be, according to historic accounts of the area. Poverty grass, wild quinine, lowbush blueberry and farkleberry are common herbs.

Forest natural communities occupy most of the natural area acreage. Forest communities range from dry on the ridges and side slopes to mesic (moist) along Taum Sauk Creek. White oaks, red oaks, post oaks, mockernut hickories, black gum and dogwoods are only a few of the tree species growing on the mountains. The boulder-filled Taum Sauk Creek winds through the forest, past the Devil's tollgate, and is fringed with sycamores, blue beech, ninebark, vernal witch hazel and a rare shrub, the winterberry.

Some 400 plant species live in the natural area. In addition, biologists have seen at least 48 animals, including reptiles, birds, mammals, fish and crayfish. No one knows how many lichens, insects or nematodes are out there to be discovered.

Although these communities may seem like untouched wilderness to the untrained eye, many signs of past human intervention exist. Fence lines are still marked by oaks with bulging rings around their trunks where the tree cambium has grown over rotten fence wire, and many double-trunked trees remain from past logging. Certain plant species that increase under disturbances, such as heavy grazing, are scattered throughout the area, including buckbrush, non-native lespedezas, mullein and Queen Anne's lace.

Like the geologic features, the living natural communities of the St. Francois Mountain Natural Area may, too, be considered antiques (they are only thousands of years old, instead of billions). And like many antiques that need to be restored, the living natural landscapes also need to be revitalized. It may be easy to restore parts of an antique chair-reglue a leg or replace a seat cover-and similarly, certain species or a certain landscape structure may be restored with relatively little difficulty.

But all of the natural parts are not even known. Species and processes are still being discovered, so it is hard to completely "restore" an area since we don't really know what all the components of the original community were. Restoration efforts include using fire, as was done in the past, to bring back the large expanses of grassy open woods and glades described by land surveyors in the 1820s. Prescribed fire may renovate certain areas fairly rapidly, but more disturbed areas may take decades or longer. As more knowledge is acquired, we may undertake new restoration methods. What took thousands of years for nature to form surely will take as long for humans to understand and rebuild.

Missouri's Natural Areas

The Missouri Natural Areas Committee works to protect and actively manage the best examples of all remaining natural communities and geologic features in Missouri as designated natural areas. The committee consists of representatives of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Mark Twain National Forest, Ozark National Scenic Riverways and Missouri Department of Conservation.

These agencies have been cooperating for more than 20 years to identify and protect Missouri's unique and common natural features. There are currently 168 natural areas with 45,000 acres designated in 74 counties. Many natural areas have more than one ownership within the designated boundaries, like the St. Francois Mountain Natural Area. Each agency is responsible only for the management of the portion that they own, although management actions may be suggested by the Missouri Natural Areas Committee for the entire designated area.

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