Missouri's Savannas and Woodlands

By Mike Leahy | August 2, 2000
From Missouri Conservationist: Aug 2000

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 stars, coneflowers, goldenrods, sunflowers and milkweeds. Native legumes, a valuable food source for our wildlife, abound in savannas and woodlands.

Visitors to one of the Conservation Department's restored savannas or woodlands will witness an astonishing amount of natural diversity. A hundred acres of high-quality woodland can support over 200 native plant species. Flying in the open spaces of a savanna you may see eastern kingbirds, eastern bluebirds, red-tailed hawks or field sparrows. Gracing the air between the oaks of a woodland you might spot a great crested flycatcher, red-headed woodpecker, summer tanager, indigo bunting or blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Over 40 species of breeding birds use savannas and woodlands for their habitat needs. Many of today's successful birds of our towns, parks, backyards and pastures were originally savanna and woodland species. The American robin and northern cardinal have quickly adapted to the artificial savannas and woodlands we have created. Some birds have not fared as well. Historically, the Bachman's sparrow used mature pine Ozark woodlands. Because of habitat loss, this state-endangered species now is confined to glades at only a few locations in the Ozarks.

More than 20 species of mammals, from fox squirrels to coyotes, use savannas and woodlands. Along with these furry animals, 16 species of reptiles and amphibians crawl, hop or slither through the habitat. Lucky visitors to a woodland might spot an ornate box turtle, a prairie ring-necked snake or a six-lined racerunner lizard. The rare eastern collared lizard that lives on some Ozark glades may use woodlands as travel corridors to get from glade to glade.

Scientists are just beginning to learn the importance of savanna and woodland habitats for insects. Among the many butterflies and moths of savannas and woodlands, the brightly colored and attractive Missouri woodland swallowtail eats the woodland plants yellow pimpernel and golden Alexanders as a caterpillar. As an adult butterfly, it feeds on the nectar of hoary puccoon and wood betony. Hoary edge and mottled dusky wing butterflies also depend on woodland plants, such as New Jersey tea and goat's rue.

Certain species of katydids and grasshoppers have narrow habitat requirements and live primarily in woodlands and glades. Native bees and butterflies of savannas and woodlands are essential to plant pollination. Abundant insects in our savannas and woodlands help feed hungry bobwhite quail and wild turkey poults.

Biologists find remnant savannas and woodlands on dry, rocky, nutrient-poor soils of south and west slopes. These areas were typically spared the plow, and their droughty soil helped maintain their open nature.

Fire was crucial in the historical development of Missouri's savanna and woodland heritage. Today the Conservation Department and other conservation organizations and agencies use prescribed fire to help restore savannas and woodlands. Other restoration options include cutting woody species, such as red cedar and elms, and in some cases seeding characteristic forb species. Initially, restoration efforts may appear ugly and untidy, often looking like a war zone, but after about five years of work the native plants and animals spring back to life with renewed vigor and a greater diversity of species.

Many of our savannas and woodlands with persisting tree cover have lost their native groundcover due to overgrazing and seeding of non-native cool-season grasses, such as tall fescue. Areas with potential for restoration occur on dry, rocky sites with old, open-grown post or chinkapin oaks. Between these trees an understory of young trees and shrubs may occur, but the presence of native grasses and forbs in the ground layer indicate the presence of a once productive natural community. Like Missouri's tallgrass prairies and wetlands, our savannas and woodlands are endangered ecosystems worthy of conserving.

Where to See Savannas and Woodlands on Public Lands

Several sites on Missouri public lands offer the opportunity to experience a savanna or woodland in the process of restoration. Whether hunting, bird watching, or hiking, these natural communities provide benefits to all who enjoy the outdoors. For best native wildflower viewing, visit these areas in June or late August.

Peck Ranch Conservation Area - Take a hike along the 9.5 miles of the Ozark Trail that winds through this 22,948-acre area located in Carter County. Sections of the trail along Mule Hollow and through Stegall Mountain Natural Area offer the best chance to view igneous and chert woodlands, along with igneous and dolomite glades.

To reach the area, travel 5 miles east of Winona on County Road H to the entrance sign. Turn east and travel 7 miles down the gravel entrance road to the area headquarters. For further information and a brochure of the site, write Wildlife Regional Supervisor, Ozark Regional Office, P.O. Box 138, West Plains 65775, or phone (417) 256-7161.

Ha Ha Tonka State Park - In spring and summer you can see blooms of puccoon and royal catchfly beneath scattered blackjack, post and white oaks along the Acorn Interpretive Trail, a 3/4-mile loop trail, or the 5-mile Turkey Pen Hollow Trail. Both wind through the 953-acre Ha Ha Tonka Savanna Natural Area. Visitors to this 2,953-acre state park can get there from Camdenton by traveling west on U.S. 54 for 2 miles, then turning south on County Road D for 2 miles to the park entrance. For further information, contact the park office, Route 1, PO Box 658, Camdenton 65020, or phone (573) 346-2986.

Caney Mountain Conservation Area - This 7,882-acre area in Ozark County is 5 miles north of Gainesville on Highway 181 (watch for the cantilever sign), then one-half mile west on the gravel entrance road. The trail through the Caney Mountain Natural Area crosses through craggy chert woodlands and expansive vistas of dolomite glades. For more information, contact the same office listed above for Peck Ranch Conservation Area.

Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area - Woodlands grow among large dolomite glades on this 1,534-acre area in Stone County. Take the Boulder Glade or Dewey Bald trails to get a closer look at the woodland wildlife. This area contains the 362-acre White River Balds Natural Area.

From Branson, take the Shepard of the Hills Expressway to its intersection with Highway 76. Turn west on 76 for one-half mile to the area entrance on the right. You can receive more information from Missouri Conservation Department Branson Office, P.O. Box 491 (226 Claremont), Branson 65616, or phone (417) 334-3324.

Knob Noster State Park - This 3,600-acre park lies only an hour away from the Kansas City metro area. The 2/3-mile Clear Fork Savanna Trail winds through restored savanna and woodlands. From U.S. 50 in Knob Noster, travel west to Highway 132, then south on 132 for 1 mile to the park's entrance. The park has a visitor center explaining the area's natural features. To learn more, contact the park office at Knob Noster 65336, or phone (660) 563-2463.

Cuivre River State Park - Within the rugged landscape of Lincoln Hills, this 6,350-acre state park makes a good day trip from the St. Louis metro area. Many of the park's 24 miles of hiking trails wind through restored oak woodlands and savannas. Parts of the park are designated natural areas. From Troy, travel east on Highway 47 for 3 miles to Highway 147. Follow 147 north to the park entrance. To learn more about the park, stop at the visitor center or contact the park office, Route 1, Box 25, Troy 63379, or phone (573) 528-7247.

This Issue's Staff

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