Natural Missouri... from the Road

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

wagon to see purple poppy mallow, rose gentian and little bluestem grass growing in dry rocky prairies of the Osage Plains.

Moving northeast into the rugged hills and plateaus of the Ozark Natural Division, I might have seen prairie dock and Missouri black-eyed Susan gracing glades and savannas, and trillium and Ozark witch hazel growing in deep hollows. Continuing northeast to the Missouri River hills in the Ozark Border, I would have passed cliffs of columbine and traveled under stately burr oaks and cottonwoods in the expansive floodplain of the Missouri river. North of the river in the rolling hills of the Glaciated Plains I could have looked down from my wagon to see white-flowered spikes of Culver's root among the tall prairie grasses.

I was, however, traveling in 1998 and saw more tall fescue along the roadside than anything else. Most of the original vegetative clues to my location were gone, and I couldn't get a good sense of where I was in the natural mosaic of Missouri.

In the last two centuries, we have lost much of our original vegetation. Land in some natural divisions, like the Mississippi Lowlands and the Osage Plains, was converted for crop fields, pastures and other human uses. Most of the Ozarks were cut over for timber products, and many floodplains and other wetlands were altered or drained. Little original vegetation has survived the plow or bulldozer, and only pockets of it remain along our roadsides.

To help expand these "pockets" along roadsides and other rights of way, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) altered its roadside management policies in 1987 to favor native vegetation. MoDOT, which spends more than $12 million annually to mow along portions of 32,000 miles of state highways, now mows less frequently in areas where motorists' visibility will not be hampered. MoDOT also has stopped mowing most steep slopes.

These management changes reduce soil erosion and allow more remnant native plants to flower, produce seed and expand their populations. Allowing more flowering plants to bloom also provides more food sources for insect pollinators, which are so important for pollinating food crops. In addition, less mowing allows the young of ground-nesting birds to fledge before nests are destroyed and provides cover for other wildlife.

"Ten percent of MoDOT's federal funds were reserved for special programs like beautification projects," says Stacy Armstrong, roadside management supervisor for MoDOT. "We expect to have a similar percentage of this

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