"I brake for native plants" would be a suitable bumper sticker for Missouri Native Plant Society members, and such a sticker might help avert fender benders.
During a field trip in southwestern Missouri, Society members' cars and trucks formed a slow, dusty convoy along county roads. As they idled along, members occasionally stuck their arms out car windows to point out interesting roadside plants. With so much distraction and sudden stops, drivers had to remain vigilant to avoid hitting the vehicle ahead.
Missouri's plant life is exceptionally well documented, and known locations of endangered plants are mapped and recorded thanks to the Missouri Department of Conservation's Natural Heritage program. This information-a good amount gathered by MONPS members-guides the sound management of land to protect the plants. Missouri's Natural Heritage Program is a member of NatureServe, a non profit, international organization dedicated to developing and providing knowledge about the world's natural diversity.
In addition, the Flora of Missouri project, supported by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Botanical Garden, maintains descriptive information and distributions of all species of Missouri plants.
Dr. George Yatskievych, the director of the project, collects and analyzes Missouri plant information. He has used the information to write the revision of Julian Steyermark's landmark The Flora of Missouri, a book that contains a technical description of all plants known to have naturally growing populations outside of cultivation in Missouri. Steyermark's original work was published in 1963. The first volume of Yatskievych's revision was published in 1999, and the second is in production. Only a handful of states have active flora projects. If you would like to purchase a copy of Steyermark's The Flora of Missouri by George Yatskievych, you may order it online from the Missouri Department of Conservation's Nature Shopor call toll-free (877) 521-8632.
The Missouri Native Plant Society dates back to 1979. Its members work as nurses, historians, doctors, homemakers, sheep farmers, teachers and biologists, but they go wild several times a year. Their field trips have taken them to every corner of the state. Not only have the society's members uncovered many plant treasures, they also know where the state's best homemade pies are served!
"At first I went on only an occasional weekend trip," said Jack Harris, current president of the Missouri Native Plant Society, "but that was enough to get me hooked."
The purpose of MONPS is to promote the enjoyment, preservation, conservation, restoration and study of this botanical heritage that we are fortunate enough to have around us. Jack Harris became acquainted with the group through his wife, Pat, who is the editor of MONPS' newsletter, The Petal Pusher.
Some of Jack and Pat's favorite MONPS trips have been to Helton Prairie Natural Area in Harrison County, where the group enjoyed a twilight plant slideshow on the prairie and observed nocturnal pollinators. They also enjoyed Sunklands Natural Area in Shannon County, one of the state's richest botanical areas with floral rarities like floating mats of plants growing in sinkhole ponds.
"On every trip there are new plants to discover," says Jack, "especially for newcomers like me."
Missouri has about 2,382 native plant species, varieties and subspecies. A "native" plant is one that has adapted to our various landscapes of the state over time. Well-known natives include pale purple coneflower and white oak.
Many native plants are considered "generalists," meaning they can grow in a variety of habitats and occur throughout the state, Trumpet creeper is a good example of a generalist.
"Conservative" plants grow only under certain conditions and only in specific, undisturbed natural communities. Examples include Missouri evening primrose on limestone glades, and smooth white violet in moist sandstone areas along small wooded, spring-fed streams.
"You can appreciate the landscape more fully when you recognize its individual elements," said Tim Smith, botanist for the Missouri Department of Conservation and MONPS member. "Many people join MONPS because they want someone to show them plants in the field rather than trying to learn about them from a book. Being able to recognize plants in the field is like being in a room full of friends instead of a room full of strangers."
In addition to organizing field trips, MONPS makes substantial contributions to the knowledge and protection of Missouri's plants. The society publishes "Missouriensis," a scientific journal of plant discoveries in Missouri, as well as its bi-monthly newsletter, "The Petal Pusher." The group also sponsors native plant sales to help Missourians incorporate native plants into their home landscaping. The MONPS website maintains fact sheets on native plant nurseries, native tree and shrub sources for landscaping, a calendar of events and other information.
MONPS members conducted plant inventories to help the recent revision of Julian Steyermark's Flora of Missouri. They also contributed plant specimens to herbaria around the state, produced plant lists for state parks and other areas to help with public land management, and advocated a state bill prohibiting plant digging from roadsides. This legislation, signed into law in 1993, helped guard against the theft of wildflowers and other native plants from Missouri's roadsides.
Plant poachers are not the only threats to our native flora. Habitat degradation, pollution and development also threaten native plant communities, Harris said.
"In the case of native plants," Harris said. "The human population explosion and the natural resource consumption habits of our culture continue to reduce space for plants to merely exist."
Habitat that does remain for native plants is, in many cases, degraded by pollution and the spread of non-native plants, also referred to as exotic or alien plants, into natural communities, he added.
Bill Summers, a MONPS member since the society's formation in 1979, also is concerned about the decline of native plant habitat, but he finds solace in belonging to the group.
"When I'm out by myself and I find something unusual, I want to share it with other people, and also encourage them to protect it," Summers said. "It just gives me peace of mind when I find a rare plant and know that it is still there despite all the destruction of plant habitats. I think many people in MONPS have the same feeling I have."
Summers became interested in native plants in 1975 through his interest in photography. He worked in the printing industry for 30 years and has no formal training in botany.
"I started taking pictures of flowers, then I wanted to know what they were," Summers said. "One time I had taken a photo of an interesting flower, and I asked two MONPS members-Art Christ and Father Sullivan-what it was. They told me it was an orchid-that was the first time I knew we had orchids in Missouri!"
Six years later, Summers wrote Orchids of Missouri, published by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Although hanging around plant enthusiasts may not turn you into a published author on plants like Bill Summers, socializing with MONPS members will give you the chance to see wonderful plants, guaranteed. And, you can eat your fair share of pie.
In addition to the statewide society, which plans field trips and annual meetings geared to all MONPS members, the Missouri Native Plant Society has chapters in St. Louis, Kansas City, Jefferson City, Columbia and Clinton. Each chapter organizes its own field trips, usually to nearby areas, as well as plant identification workshops, monthly meetings with guest speakers, plant sales and seed-collecting trips and other events.
In the mid-1990s, Carroll Eaglesfield, a retired minister, started the Clinton chapter. A trained plant taxonomist and noted photographer, Eaglesfield has generously shared his love and knowledge of plants in Clinton.
"We've had a wonderful opportunity to learn from Carroll," said Marlene Miller, a nurse and former president of the Clinton chapter. "In the winter months, when we didn't have living material to learn from, he would bring in his pressed plant specimens and show slides to teach us differences between plant families."
Eaglesfield, now 86, is still active with the Clinton chapter and gave a presentation to the group on plant families just last November. He also generously donated his collection of more than 300 pressed and mounted specimens of Missouri native plants to the Palmer-Dunn Herbarium at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
For more information on the statewide MONPS group, and/or one of its chapters, write to: Missouri Native Plant Society, P.O. Box 20073, St. Louis, MO 63144-0073. You can also contact MONPS president Jack Harris at <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or call him at (314) 894-9021.
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