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Tall Grass Prairie

Tall Grass Prairie in Late Summer. Photo © John Whiteman

The tall grass prairie is a type of habitat found only in North America. Once grazed by bison, this unique ecosystem is characterized by large, open areas dominated by perennial grasses, wildflowers and other broad-leaved, nonwoody plants with scattered shrubs and very few trees. Prairie soil is deep, rich and fertile and though it may look open, it is actually a very crowded place. The prairie is comprised of many plants competing for space and sunlight and receives between 30-35 inches of rainfall per year.

Native prairies used to spread across nearly all of the northern and western parts of Missouri. Today, there is less than 1/10th of one percent of original prairie remaining in the Midwest, making is an endangered habitat. The Nature Center’s tall grass prairie was planted to native vegetation starting in 2000. It is not mowed but is restored every few years with a prescribed burn. The most important reason for the controlled burn is to release the nutrients into the soil so they may help the new plants in the spring. The fire also helps manage invasive plant species.

25 kinds of grasses and 300 kinds of flowering plants make up the tall grass prairie flora reaching from Minnesota to Texas, Kansas to Indiana. All were adapted to midwest hot summers and cold winters, with wet years and draughts. Unlike in the forest where flowers mostly bloom in spring due to sunlight, the prairie receives sun year-round, giving us a changing spectrum of blooms from early spring to late fall. 

Plants living on the prairie support a wide variety of birds, mammals and insects. As many as 100 different kinds of ants and more than 150 kinds of bees live in tall grass prairies. These, as well as butterflies, moths, beetles and thousands of other insects, are essential for pollination and provide food for birds and other animals. 

A few of the many fascinating animals that call the tallgrass prairie home are:
Monarch Butterfly
American Kestrel
Field Crickets
Plains Gartersnake
Black Capped Chickadee
Plains Leopard Frog
Red-tailed Hawk


The wetlands habitat just south of the Nature Center provides a quiet oasis for birds, animals and people alike. In addition to the water features, there are many different kinds of bird feeders, a bird watching blind and benches. To learn what birds are frequently in our area, go to Birds. Cody, the coyote, is also housed just west of the area and will occasionally call out from his pen.

A wetland is an area of land that is either covered by water or saturated with water except during extreme drought. Wetlands provide some of the richest wildlife habitat and can occur within many other habitat types, including bottomland forests and woodlands, flatwoods, prairies and stream edges. One type of wetland is a marsh.


Freshwater marshes develop along edges of ponds, lakes, streams and moving rivers. Plants that need wet areas include cattails and reeds. These emergent plants root under water, while the stems and leaves grow above the water.

A marsh acts like a giant sponge that helps reduce flooding. Marshes collect water an slowly release the water into nearby lakes and streams. Wetlands act as a filter and help remove pollutants from the water.

Some of the plants and trees growing in the marsh at the Nature Center are:
Honey Locust

Blue-eyed Grass
Common Duckweed
Burr Oak
Eastern Cottonwood
American Sycamore

The health of a wetland is determined by indicator species; animals, plants and microorganisms that use wetlands for part or all of their life-cycle. Scientists use them to monitor changes in our environment. Toads, frogs, insects, birds and mammals depend on wetlands to survive.  


Stream and Pond in Spring. Photo © John Whiteman

The stream and pond provide a unique eco-system for several plants and animals. Many of the plants seen in the marsh are also in or near the stream and pond as well as spearmint.

Bottomland Forest

Bottomland forests grow in rich, deep soils in low places that are seasonally wet. Melting snow and spring rains cause temporary flooding that can last more than a month.

Cottonwood, burr oak, black walnut, sycamore and pawpaw trees grow in bottomland forests and help protect water quality by preventing soil from being washed into streams. They also absorb nutrients, fertilizers and pollutants.

Because of flooding, the understory of bottomland forests is relatively open but completely shaded during dry months. Ground cover is sparse; common plants include:

Tree cavities, snags and downed trees provide shelter important for wildlife to thrive. The damp habitat is crucial for the life cycle of many:


Bottomland forests are especially important habitat for migratory birds traveling between North America and the tropics.

Downed Tree, Bottomland Forest in Winter. Photo © John Whiteman

Forests and Woodlands

While similar, woodlands and forests are different. In a woodland, large spaces between the tree tops allow light to penetrate to the ground. This allows dense ground cover such as a variety of grasses, sedges and wildflowers to grow. Fire also plays a large role in maintaining woodland habitats.

In a forest, leaves and branches from different trees meet and overlap. This creates a closed canopy that permits very little sunlight to reach the ground. Forests are dense and contain trees of varying heights; a canopy, a mid-story and understory make up a variety of shade-tolerant plants. 

Lowland forests grow at lower elevations and near water, while upland forests are in drier areas and at higher elevations. Both types of forests provide food, shelter and nesting areas to hundreds of species of animals.

Limestone Glades

Glade, Fox Hollow Trail. Photo © Linda Callahan

Located on south or west-facing slopes, glades are open, rocky areas located in the middle of upland woodlands. The shallow soil and direction of the slope produces a hot and often extremely dry environment. 

Glade Plants and Animals

Uniquely adapted to hot and dry environment, some of plants and animals found on the limestone glades near the Nature Center are:
Plains Prickly Pear
Missouri Evening Primrose
Wavyleaf Purple Coneflower
Wild Petunia
Compass Plant

Eastern American Toad
Five-Lined Skink
North American Deermouse
Eastern Milksnake
Brown Thrasher

Loss of Glade Habitat Means Loss of Species

Missouri glades used to be more common than they are now. The thin, poor soils along with fires caused by lightning strikes would burn through the glades and limit the presence of trees. Without fire, glades can be invaded by woody plants such as the eastern red cedar and the invasive bush honeysuckle. When these plants move in, the glade habitat is reduced or even eliminated which then leads to a decline in plant and animal species.


Savanna in Spring. Photo © John Whiteman

A savanna is a transitional habitat found between woodlands and prairies. This wide-open, parklike space is dominated by tall native grasses, wildflowers and a few trees that grow in both prairies and forests. This mix of woodland and grassland is home to a wide range of plants and animals.

When Native Americans lived on these hills, the uplands were mostly savannah – scattered trees growing in prairie. During periods of dry years, not many trees could get enough water to grow and thrive. Burr oak was especially resistant to prairie fires, so they made up most of the lone trees giving shade to elk on scorching days. After European settlers moved in and stopped the fires, other trees whose nuts were buried by squirrels, started an upland forest. To bring back the savannah community here, small shrubs and small trees have been cut and native grasses and flowers were planted in 2002, leaving the larger trees. 

Summer sun will let us enjoy the colors of the blooms. Trees growing in open sun have broad branches and lower branches can still get sun. Woodland trees grow narrower, and lower branches die. 

Many prairie and woodland plants thrive in the open understory of the savanna. Grasses, wildflowers and shrubs provide homes for insects and ground-dwelling wildlife. Nut-bearing trees, including oaks, hickories and walnuts, provide rich food sources and nesting sites for a wide variety of birds and animals. Some of the plants and trees found on the savanna are:
Little Blue Stem
White Prairie Clover
Flowering Dogwood
Northern Sea Oats
White Oak Tree

Savannas support birds and animals that can live in both grassy open areas or woodlands. Red-tailed hawks hunt mice, squirrels and chipmunks. The American kestrel dives for a variety of flying insects. Birds, reptiles and larger mammals call this blended habitat home. Animals found on the savanna include:
Indigo Bunting
Eastern Tiger Salamander
Wild Turkey
Eastern Cottontail
Western Rat Snake

For more information on Missouri’s native habitats, go here.

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