Loess hills prairies offer wildflower rarities

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Rock Port, Mo. – Lavender blooms appeared halfway up the steep loess-soil slope at Star School Prairie Conservation Area as biologist Steve Buback stalked rarities. After a harsh winter, and ahead of summer’s dry spells, Lambert loco weed bloomed profusely on a recent May visit. This flower and several other prairies natives are only found in Missouri on this Atchison County bluff in the state’s northwest corner.

“There’s always an opportunity in this part of the world to find something unusual,” said Buback, a natural history biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

Native prairie grasses and wildflowers grow on bluff tops and west slopes at Star School Prairie and nearby Brickyard Hill Conservation Area, overlooking the Missouri River valley. Some plants are rarities adapted to dry soil conditions usually found farther West. These hilltops hold small remnants of a loess hill prairie ecosystem that once followed the Missouri River bluffs from the Great Plains into northwest Missouri. Farming practices and the elimination of wild fire have left only a few prairies of this type. MDC preserves these species-rich remnants for people to enjoy. Wildlife benefits, too.

Buback watched a sphinx moth hover over loco weed blooms drinking nectar. Two wild turkeys scampered away as he crossed the ridge top. This interplay between plants and creatures is ancient.

Loess soil hills were piled high by southwesterly winds in the glacial eras. Erosion cut and carved rounded mounds or even sheer cliffs. Some ridges are only a few feet wide at the top but tower over the river bottom and offer a view into Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. The well-drained soil dries quickly, and the slopes face the afternoon sun and prevailing winds. Thus, while some plants species might be fairly common in western Nebraska’s short grass prairie, they are unusual in Missouri except for these windswept ridges.

A plant called the wavy-leaved thistle was found at Brickyard Hill a few years ago, Buback said, it’s first sighting in Missouri in 80 years.

Prairie plants offer unique forms and beauty. Soapweed yucca is beginning to bloom, sending up an elegant, greenish-white, wax-textured flower spike. This is one of only two yuccas native to Missouri and is only found in Atchison and Holt counties. Most yucca plants familiar to people are Spanish bayonet from the southwestern United States that escaped from cultivation. But the soapweed yucca, with roots used by pioneers and Native Americans for food and soap making, is native.

Buback climbed higher on the ridge and found downy painted cup flowers in bloom. They are a lovely light green, a close relative to the plant that blooms bright red elsewhere in Missouri that is called Indian paintbrush.

The loess hill prairies originally thrived from the state’s northwest corner to St. Joseph, and perhaps in patches on down to Kansas City. Private landowners can help preserve and restore these unique prairie tracts. Prescribed fire and eliminating invasive trees can boost native plants.

MDC will host a Loess Hill Timber and Prairie Field Day 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 31, at the Sean and Erin Slocum farm south of Mound City. The workshop is free and lunch will be provided by MDC. For more information or to register call 660-442-3173, ext. 114.

Both the Star School Prairie and the Brickyard Hill grasslands are open to visitors. Star School is visible from Interstate 29 and near the highway. But to get to both areas visitors should take the Watson exit off I-29 and follow local roads. The Star School prairie has a north and south unit, both with parking lots. The prairie portion of Brickyard Hill is in the area’s southwest corner. For information, maps and directions for Star School go to http://on.mo.gov/1sxoX16, and for information on Brickyard Hill go to http://on.mo.gov/RWtxuJ.

Terrain is steep and trails limited at these areas. Anyone planning to visit should be prepared for uphill and downhill hiking. Binoculars will help you scan the slopes for flowers, birds and butterflies from the lower levels if you wish to avoid the climb. Loess hills are pretty at a distance, too.

Peak flower blooming occurs in spring and late summer, Buback said. The native grasses turn rusty red in autumn.

For more information on prairie conservation in Missouri go to http://www.mdc.mo.gov.