The Look and Life of the Prairie

By Jim Auckley | March 2, 1997
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 1997

Rex and Amy Hamilton live on a 750-acre farm near Houston, Mo. Like many of their neighbors they raise cattle, but they also grow prairie grasses and native wildflowers.

The Hamiltons sell prairie grass seed to a wide range of customers, from farmers seeking warm-season forage for their cattle to managers who need resilient plantings for golf courses. Rural landowners may buy grass and flowers to reestablish prairie on their land or for wildlife, while homeowners simply decorate their yards with islands of wildflowers.

The Hamiltons first saw a need for native grasses in rotation with fescue grass for grazing cattle when both of them worked for the Soil Conservation Service. Later they noticed how well wildflowers grew among native grasses, and realized the flowers were also an important part of the mix of native plants.

About eight years ago the Hamiltons built a small lake behind their house. Amy planted native grasses on the banks of the lake, then she decided also to plant some native flowers around the lake and began looking for flower seed. Her search turned into a flourishing business that sees the Hamiltons now selling about 60 varieties of wildflowers and 10 varieties of grasses.

The Hamiltons have about 30 acres of flowers and 125 acres of native grasses on land that was once a natural savanna. Most of their seeds and plants are sold in the Midwest, but they have a small catalog and get orders from as far away as the East Coast. The catalog includes information on planting and managing native plants and grasses. They sell seed, bare roots and potted plants for flowers and seed and bare roots for native grasses. A handful of other Missouri growers are also producing native grasses and plants, plants that benefit wildlife.

The banks of the pond behind the house are dry, but native plants have taken hold there. We often think of the historical Ozarks as unbroken miles of forests, but in truth much of it was savanna - trees scattered through grasslands - and dry, rocky glades. Amy Hamilton points out that tall grasses, like big bluestem, may produce the most dependable seed crop on deep prairie soils, but that the shorter grasses, like little bluestem and Indian grass, grow well on dry south- and west-facing Ozark slopes.

The Hamiltons collect seed on their own farm, but also travel widely collecting grass and flower seed. They collect seed with a brush-type seed stripper combine that mounts on the front end of a tractor, or they collect by hand. September and October are the best months for gathering the grasses, but flower seeds can be gathered throughout the growing season. "We start picking wildflowers in late May and continue right up to deer season," Rex Hamilton says.

Is it hard to grow native wildflowers from seed? "I learned from the school of hard knocks," Amy Hamilton says with a grin. She grows some wildflowers in pots in a greenhouse, moving them into bigger pots as needed, while growing others in fields. The Hamiltons have 30 acres of flowers, most in fields that they totally cleared before planting native flora in them. It is easier to start plants in a new field, they say, than to fight all the competing weeds and grasses in an old field.

Growing flowering plants in fields is less labor-intensive than using a greenhouse. "It may take them two to four years to bloom," Amy Hamilton says, "but you still don't have the work in them that you have growing something in a greenhouse." Growing plants in fields also produces roots for sale, though some of these get too big to put in pots.

Native wildflowers are different from domestic plants in a couple of ways. "Most people get excited about gardening in May," Amy says, "and it's just too late." She says the best time to plant wildflower seeds is in December and January because they need to be cold and wet for up to eight weeks to break their dormancy.

Bare roots should be planted in March or early April. The existing vegetation at your planting site must be killed ahead of time, and you may need to work on that as much as a year ahead of planting.

The Hamilton's favorite flowers included purple poppy mallow, button blazing star and royal catchfly. "Purple poppy mallow is a fuschia color," Amy Hamilton says. "It really lights up when the sun shines on it." Rex Hamilton adds that purple poppy mallow is a trailing plant and that it has a long blooming time.

Button blazing star is a late-blooming wildflower, showing off its color in August and September. It is three-feet tall and attractive to butterflies. "It's a pretty flower," Amy Hamilton says, "and I especially like plants that bloom in August."

The Hamiltons say their third pick - royal catchfly - is a favorite with hummingbirds. Their catalog notes royal catchfly's "striking crimson scarlet flowers are quite showy from June to September. The flowers are up and down a two- to three-foot stem." Royal catchfly tolerates dry soil and light shade.

When landowners come to the Soil Conservation Service or the Conservation Department they often want to do something for wildlife, and one of their best choices is to plant prairie grasses. "We see a great improvement in wildlife after native grasses have been started in a field," Rex Hamilton says. "Quail really seem to benefit from native grasses."

Rex Hamilton notes that when native grasses are used for grazing cattle, they can't be eaten down to the roots, but must be rested occasionally. If they aren't, they may be lost. Warm-season native grasses can be rested in fall, when cool season grasses are growing and can be used to graze cattle. Some grazing, haying or burning actually stimulates native plants and makes them produce more forage and seed. Burning an area can also destroy the weeds or exotic plants and grasses that have been suppressing the growth of native plants.

Part of the Hamilton's yard between the house and a couple of barns looks like an urban lawn and garden business. Amy Hamilton has potted wildflowers set out in rows with signs, including color photos of what each plant will look like when it flowers. The Hamiltons live off the beaten track, and Amy notes that their catalog reaches people who wouldn't want to drive into the wilds of Texas County to find them, though she does have these plants set out, garden-shop style, for people who do drive in. She hopes to someday have more of a wholesale business, selling to greenhouses and garden businesses in cities near and far.

Along with a new greenhouse built on the south side of their home, the Hamiltons have an unusual new barn. It was built with the seed business in mind. Upstairs the floor is covered with piles of plants that are drying on tarps. These are plants they have collected from afar and brought home to carefully remove seed from chaff. On the ground level there are stalls that hold various collections of harvested plants.

The barn includes several unusual looking machines. These are used for separating and cleaning seeds. Separation is done by screening and the use of compressed air. "I can't imagine what we will do with this barn if the seed business doesn't work out," Rex Hamilton says with a wide smile.

The Hamiltons are producing a unique product at a time when there is growing interest in the restoration of all things native - from fish and animals to plants. They would shy from the description of them as some of the most knowledgeable people in Missouri in the area of prairie restoration, but they will in fact be responsible for much of the seeds, plants and roots that go out to people with an awakening enthusiasm for the state's prairie heritage.

Where to See Native Wildflowers on Public Lands

The best time to see native wildflowers in Missouri is in June when coneflowers start blooming, though there is probably something to enjoy from the end of March through October. In mid-August a smaller peak takes place when showy blazing star blooms.

Paintbrush Prairie Natural Area

This wildflower site is located on the 314 acre Paint Brush Prairie Conservation Area in Pettis County south of Sedalia. It has good access where it adjoins Highway 65. The area is home to rare plants and animals, including the endangered Mead's milkweed. For further information and a brochure of the site, contact the Wildlife District Supervisor, West Central District Office, 1014 Thompson Blvd., Sedalia 65301, or phone (816) 530-5500.

Taberville Prairie Natural Area located on the 1,680-acre Taberville Prairie Conservation Area in St. Clair County. This is Missouri's largest natural area. It has upland prairie and a prairie headwaters stream. Its wildflowers and grasses create a beautiful landscape. To reach Taberville Prairie, go .5 mile east of Appleton City on Hwy. 52, then 2 miles south on Hwy. A, then 7 miles south on Hwy. H. For more information, contact the Wildlife District Supervisor, Osage District Office, 722 E. Hwy. 54, PO Box 106, El Dorado Springs 64744, or phone (417) 876-5226.

La Petite Gemme Natural Area located south of Bolivar in Polk County. It is small compared to other prairie tracts but is of exceptional quality. The name is French for "the little gem" and recognizes the French influence on Missouri as well as the gemlike quality of the prairie wildflowers. The natural area is 1 mile west on the first county road west of the junction of Hwy. 13 and Business Hwy. 13. For more information, contact the Wildlife District Supervisor, Southwest District Office, 2630 N. Mayfair, Springfield 65803, or phone (417) 895-6880.

Niawathe Prairie Natural Area a 240-acre site near Greenfield in Dade County. It features an upland tallgrass prairie. Interesting plants include fringed poppy mallow, blue false indigo, royal catchfly and the endangered Mead's milkweed. To reach the area go 1 mile west of Hwy. 97 on Hwy. E, then .5 mile north on an unnamed gravel road. For more information, contact the same district office listed for La Petite Gemme Natural Area.

  • The source for this information is the Directory of Missouri Natural Areas, copyright 1996 by the Missouri Natural Areas Committee.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer