Summer Magic in Missouri

Every corner of Missouri has something special to offer for the native-plant gardener. I am more familiar with native plants for glades and shady spots, as my gardens have almost always been under trees. Now that I am cultivating a sunny glade on a dry, rocky hill, my interest has shifted to finding plants well-suited to shallow soils and little water. The Missouri prairie offers many wonderful plant choices for native gardens with these conditions.

Even if you grew up in Missouri, it is unlikely that you have seen a mature prairie at the height of bloom since much of the native grassland was destroyed by the plow or the cow long ago. St. Louis was almost all prairie at the time of French settlement, with only a band of trees along the river. The word prairie actually comes from the French word for 'meadow.' When Henry Shaw bought the land on which the Missouri Botanical Garden grows, it was part of the Prairie des Noyers or Walnut Prairie. His land was all treeless except for the stand of sassafras trees that grace the mausoleum grounds by Tower Grove House. These few trees were inspiration for the ‘grove’ part of Tower Grove. Ladue, for example, had mixed vegetation, with open grasslands and ridges marked with brush and patches of woods. Florissant was such a lush prairie filled with so many wildflowers that it was named after them.

Swimming in a Sea of Prairie

Normally, one cannot imagine a sunny July day in a western Missouri prairie as being heaven, but with this cooler-than-normal summer, we enjoyed not one, but three days in a row of delightfully cool weather in our quest to view the summer splendor of some protected prairies. In southwestern Missouri, we visited the Penn-Sylvania, Golden, Coyne and Schwartz Prairies, all near Stockton and managed by the Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF). We tromped, clambered, tiptoed and rode on horseback through some of the most beautiful living landscapes I have ever seen. We spent the entire middle day of our delightful journey hiking through several magnificent prairie preserves. It was my first experience being completely surrounded by the brilliant head-high purple spires of prairie blazing star Liatris and the striking white contemporary architecture of the elegant rattlesnake master. We saw wild blue sage, tall coreopsis, prairie rose gentian, white spikes of Culver’s root and obedient plant in full bloom. Lead plant, Amorpha canescens, punctuated the sea of green with soft, silvery foliage. Rosa carolina, a tiny sweet pink single-flowered wild rose, was buried low beneath the tall grasses. In this prairie, these roses were barely knee-high.

Wading through tall grasses and stepping gingerly over bare rocky pools, we observed many different combinations of plants and insects based on soil type, rock strata, moisture movement and slope direction. Some of our most special finds were the rich purple iron weeds (Vernonia) and the brilliant red royal catchfly (Silene regia). Both of these plants are already in my glade garden, but while I have 10 or 20, there were hundreds here…and the air was filled with butterflies!

Close to Home

The nearest collection of labeled prairie plants for you to enjoy is at the south end of the William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Or visit the Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit for a more extensive prairie experience. These grasslands have been carefully reconstituted through the decades by removing invasive cedars and bush honeysuckle, re-introducing fire management for woody plant control and careful seeding and planting of suitable native species. Its fall plant sale will include many prairie plants well suited to our local conditions.

In St. Louis, there is still one tiny patch of ‘virgin prairie,’ or land that has never been cut by the plow. It is in the corner of Calvary Cemetery on West Florissant Avenue. This tract of tall grass prairie has more than 130 species of native prairie plants. About 25 acres in size, the site is being preserved and managed by the Calvary Cemetery Prairie Partnership.

Other prairie preservation efforts are ongoing in Missouri. You may join the Missouri Prairie Foundation and support its mission of rescuing and restoring unplowed fragments of our historic grasslands. This dedicated group has brought 3,300 acres under protection and currently manages more than 2,600 acres. The foundation will be holding its annual dinner in St. Louis Sept. 7 with Monarch Watch founder Chip Taylor as the featured speaker. For details, visit

The Missouri Native Plant Society ( is another great group to join if you would like to learn more about Missouri plants. There is an active local St. Louis chapter.

A Prairie Primer

One of our most reliable native plant growers, Missouri Wildflowers Nursery in Jefferson City, offers a special planting package with 10 selections that are perfect for a ‘starter prairie,’ including blue sage, butterfly weed, sky blue aster, fringed poppy mallow and gray-head coneflower. They recommend starting with plants, rather than seed, so that you may gain more rapid gratification from your planting efforts. Start this fall to prepare the ground for easy spring planting.

Steps for Getting a Pocket Prairie Started

1. Choose a full sun location and start small.

2. Design your pocket prairie as you would any border.

3. Select plants with short, medium and tall profiles.

4. Mixed textures and bloom times enhance the outcome.

5. Mark the boundaries with a garden hose or spray paint.

6. Kill existing turf with herbicide or black plastic layers.

7. Order the starters only when you are ready to plant.

8. When all vegatation is dead, till the area to about 6 inches.

9. Plant according to your layout.

10. Water, mulch and wait.

11. Weed as needed.

12. Mow or burn in the winter every third year.


Shaw Wildflower Market

Featuring Missouri Wildflowers Nursery plants, along with local foods, artwork and more! For more information call (636) 451-3512.

Friday, Sept. 6, 4-7:30 p.m.

Shaw Nature Reserve, Gray Summit, MO

$5 admission/Free to Garden members

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