Natural Missouri... from the Road
"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 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 funding for these projects in the future."
She says MoDOT has implemented scenic roadside "Adopt-A Highway" and "Growing Together" projects with schools, other agencies, businesses and individuals. Instead of using invasive species like European tall fescue and Eurasian crown vetch in such projects, MoDOT is using native plant seed in selected areas.
One such project, a cooperative effort with the U.S. Forest Service and the Missouri Native Plant Society, targeted 6 miles of Highway 60 through the Mark Twain National Forest. Other projects include plantings at rest stops along Interstate 70 near Boonville, coordinated with the Conservation Department, and a stretch of Highway 54 between Jefferson City and Eldon adopted by the Missouri Wildflowers Nursery. Rockpost Wildflowers nursery planted another portion of the same highway near Fulton.
MoDOT has seeded native grasses after highway construction projects at the following locations: the south side of Interstate 70 near Williamsburg; at various locations along Highway 63 between Columbia and Moberly; along Highway 86 in Stone County, west of Highway 13, along Highway 160 in Christian County south of Nixa and along Highway 65 in Dallas County, south of Buffalo.
Other government entities also are establishing native plantings along rights-of-way under their jurisdiction. In Boone County, the public works department and the Natural Resources Conservation Service worked together to plant native grasses and wildflowers on sections of disturbed soil along reconstructed county roads. Workers broadcast a bottomland plant seed mix that included cord grass, cardinal flower, brown eyed Susans, goldenrod and spiderwort along the roadways through a floodplain. Such plants have evolved in wetter regions and are well suited to bottomland areas.
An upland mix that included Indian and little blue stem grasses, butterfly milkweed, black-eyed Susans, rough blazing star and pale purple coneflower was used for drier portions of the roadways. These seed mixes cost about twice as much as the traditional seed mixes, but these perennial native plants require less maintenance, so that money saved by mowing will pay for the plants in about three years.
As an added bonus, many native plants used in roadside management evolved in the dry climate of our prairies and glades and have massive root systems-as much as 15 feet deep. These roots "strengthen" the soil to prevent erosion. They also supply water to the plants even in the peak of a droughty summer, keeping them green while shallow-rooted exotics dry up and turn brown.
Preserving Missouri's remaining native vegetation and reintroducing plants native to natural communities along rights of way provide measurable financial and ecological benefits. The aesthetic benefits are immeasurable, but are no less important. When I'm traveling down the road and see glade plants in the Ozarks, or tall grasses in the Glaciated Plains prairies or water canna in the Bootheel, I can appreciate the natural patchwork of Missouri at close range, as Brackenridge did nearly 200 years ago.