The predawn sky was transitioning from deep black to inky indigo as the rippled horizon of Union Ridge Conservation Area began to take form. With just enough light to see, I left my flashlight in the truck and pulled out a hip pack with one camera and two lenses (16–35mm and
70–200mm), so I could move quickly along the ridge tops. One last call from a whippoorwill heralded the edge of night and the break of day. Gentle breezes rustled oaks in the savanna below me, my pants soaked to mid-thigh by the heavy dew. It made for a comfortably chilly walk, which I relished on this July morning, knowing that the temperature and humidity would quickly climb once the sun broke over the distant hills.
The sunrise over the undulating ridges was magnificent. Pockets of fog obscured the valleys and gave a gentle hint at the hills’ steep and rugged terrain. Dewdrops twinkled on big bluestem and sumac, hanging like crystal lenses scattering a nearly blinding rainbow of light across the landscape.
I continued my hike and happened upon a nice clump of wild bergamot. It’s in the family Lamiaceae (mint), genus Monarda and also known as bee balm and horsemint. The plants are common in Missouri, and their flowers bloom from April to August, depending on the species. A field of bergamot has a heady, spicy smell that I find intoxicating, and it’s one of my favorite summer scents. It also tastes great. Wild bergamot makes a popular tea during cold and flu season.
Union Ridge Conservation Area is about 20 miles northwest of Kirksville and includes more than 8,000 acres of grasslands, prairie, savanna, and forest. The area had mainly been used for cattle ranching in the past. It is considered one of the Department’s priority geographies, or best wild places, being conserved to its pre-settlement conditions.
Spring Creek Ranch Natural Area is located within Union Ridge. Department staff is restoring this 1,769-acre natural area to prairie and savanna. Through prescribed burning, a diverse mix of native grasses and wildflowers such as big bluestem, little bluestem, pale purple coneflower, and leadplant have returned to the landscape.
The plants are beautiful, and they add value to the wildlife in this habitat. I have seen signs of whitetail in the area, and I hear there is a good population of quail and other upland game.
—Story and photograph by David Stonner
We help people discover nature through our online Field Guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/field-guide to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.
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Photographer - David Stonner
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