Missouri's Savannas and Woodlands

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Scattered, open-grown oaks with large, spreading branches are characteristic savanna trees. Prescribed fire is an essential tool in savanna and woodland management.

Missouri is in a broad transition zone between the forests of the east and the grasslands of the Great Plains. Fires set by lightning and Native Americans and grazing by bison and elk created a shifting boundary between grass and trees for thousands of years across the landscape. At the time of statehood, nearly a third of Missouri may have been savanna or woodland.

Early explorers, such as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, noted the openness of the woods and the abundant grasses and wildflowers growing under the oaks. Today conservation biologists have identified approximately 9,000 acres of remnant high-quality savannas and woodlands in the state. But up to 800,000 acres in Missouri may have degraded remnants that can be restored.

Our savannas and woodlands represent a valuable part of the state's natural heritage, providing us with wildlife habitat, spectacular wildflower displays and a whole host of insects and other important critters.

Savannas and woodlands support a variety of oaks: post, bur, blackjack, black, chinkapin and white. This preponderance of oaks provides large acorn crops-high energy food for wild turkey, white-tailed deer and squirrels.

Savannas consist of widely spaced trees, mainly oaks with occasional hickories, growing over an open understory and a thick ground cover of prairie grasses and wildflowers. Because they typically occur in association with prairies, you could describe savannas as basically prairies with trees.

Woodlands, by comparison, have a more closed overstory of trees but maintain an open understory. This allows enough sunlight to reach the ground to favor a group of sedges, grasses, low shrubs and wildflowers that do best in a woodland environment.

Like savannas, woodland canopies contain primarily oaks, but they also have hickories and sometimes shortleaf pine in the Ozarks. Woodlands can occur in association with prairies, but more frequently they exist surrounding glades.

True forests, as opposed to woodlands, have a heavy overstory canopy and a thick understory. Multiple layers of canopy trees and shade-adapted shrubs and saplings occur. Forests contain more fire-sensitive trees and shrubs, such as northern red oak, sugar maple and American hornbeam.

Forests explode in the spring with an emerald carpet of ferns and colorful spring wildflowers. But by mid-summer the forest floor becomes rather drab.

In contrast, savannas and woodlands have a lesser showing in spring, but by mid-summer they come alive with the blooms of asters, blazing

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