Forests on the Fringe

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2001

Throughout its history, Missouri has been known as a border state. It is a place where north meets south, and east meets west. It is also where the forests of each of these regions come together.

Missouri lies at the western fringe of the central hardwoods, a transition zone between forest and tallgrass prairie. This makes for a diverse and complex landscape. Trees typical of Ozark and Appalachian forests grow in north Missouri woodlots, while islands of tallgrass prairie are found deep in the Ozark hills.

Stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Great Plains, the central hardwood forest blankets the nation's mid-section. It is one of the largest forested areas in the country, and it contains a great diversity of plants and animals. This diversity includes more than 70 hardwood trees, several conifers and many shrubs and plants. The great richness of plants and animals is the result of the wide diversity of soils, geology, geography and climate in the region.

Other boundaries also put Missouri's forests on the fringe. Glaciers advanced about as far south as the Missouri River during the last ice age. They scoured north Missouri flat and left behind a thick layer of glacial till. Plants retreated ahead of the glacier to sanctuaries in the Ozarks, where some remain even today. In the southeast corner of the state, the Ozarks drop abruptly into the Bootheel and the lush, alluvial land of the Mississippi River. With different geographic and climatic regions pushing against it, Missouri serves as a haven for a variety of plants and animals from all sides.

If you were to drive from the northwest corner to the southeast corner of the state, you would get a sense of the richness of our forests and the variety of life they support.

Geologically speaking, North Missouri was covered by glaciers in recent times. About 500,000 years ago, the Kansan glaciers retreated, leaving a layer of soil and rock several hundred feet deep. In presettlement times, we think the region's vegetation consisted of upland and bottomland prairies with relatively large tracts of forest in the river bottoms and steep side slopes. This vegetative pattern still holds true today, except much of the prairie and bottomland forest is now agricultural land.

Bur oak is more prevalent in northwest Missouri than white oak, but white oak is more common over the rest of the state. Bur oak's thicker bark makes it more resistant to the

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