Natural Missouri... from the Road

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

"To the right, the Missouri is concealed by a wood of no great width, extending to the Mississippi, a distance of ten miles. Before me I could mark the course of the latter river, its banks without even a fringe of wood....To the left, we behold the ocean of prairie, with islets at intervals. The whole extent perfectly level, covered with long, waving grass, and at every moment changing color from the shadows cast by the passing clouds. In some places, there stands a solitary tree, or cottonwood or walnut, of enormous size, but, from the distance, diminished to a shrub. A hundred thousand acres of the finest land are under the eye at once..." -Henry Marie Brackenridge, 1814, describing a bottomland prairie in St. Charles County

When Henry Marie Brackenridge made observations about our state's vegetation, he was traveling by flatboat through Missouri on an expedition for the Missouri Fur Company. Like other early explorers and Native Americans, Brackenridge's 19th-century mode of travel made him acutely aware of his surroundings. Notwithstanding the hardships of 19th century travel-convenience stores were non-existent-Brackenridge's transportation method allowed him to see the presettlement landscape unfold around him and to observe the original vegetation of our state at close range.

Today, most of what we see of Missouri is from the roadside; we aren't forging new routes like the Osage tribe or Daniel Boone on horseback or Lewis and Clark in a canoe or keelboat. Riding along roads in our cars, utility vehicles and pickups, we move safely and quickly from point A to point B. But we pay a price for comfort and speed: traditional roadside flora-usually involving plants not from Missouri-remains essentially the same across the state, even though the landscape changes. Without the clues of native vegetation along the road, it's easy to lose our sense of place.

The region that Brackenridge described lies within several natural divisions-as natural resource professionals call them today-including the Glaciated Plains, Ozark Border and Big Rivers. Missouri's other natural divisions are the Osage Plains, the Ozarks and the Mississippi Lowlands in the Bootheel. Each has a distinct geologic and climatic history and corresponding vegetation; each is a distinct "place."

Recently I drove from Nevada to Hannibal, crossing five natural divisions: the Osage Plains, Ozark, Ozark Border, Big Rivers and Glaciated Plains. Had I been one of Brackenridge's contemporaries traveling during the growing season, I might have looked down from my horse-drawn

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