Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Take a walk on the wildflower side

Don't miss summer and autumn color at MDC's prairie remnants

Mount Moriah, Mo. – From bright purple to yellow, the colors that wildflowers splash against green grasses are changing this month at the Helton Prairie Natural Area. Tall blazing star still adds lavender, but their flower spikes are fading and transitioning to seed. Yet flowers such as rigid sunflower and black eyed Susan are in bright-yellow bloom, hinting that autumn is approaching, a time when the grasses like big bluestem turn a reddish-golden hue.
Colors change with the seasons at the 30-acre Helton Prairie, now a tiny botanical island in what was once vast native grassland in northwest Missouri. Botanists have identified almost 200 species of plants on that small acreage. Prairies are incredibly diverse in flora and fauna, and in the relationships between soil, roots and microorganisms. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) manages prairie remnants throughout the state to preserve the rich diversity.
Visitors are welcome at MDC-managed prairies. What a person sees one month, or even one week, is likely to be different the next. They are constantly growing and blooming in summer, and even while fading in winter the plant stalk shapes and seed pods are interesting.
Helton Prairie is especially valuable because very few unplowed prairie remnants remain in north Missouri. The deep soil enriched by prairies became fertile farm country. This remnant is in the northwest corner of the 2,560-acre Wayne Helton Memorial Wildlife Area in Harrison County. MDC is currently restoring grasslands at the wildlife area by removing some trees, planting native warm-season grasses, and conducting prescribed fires.
The Helton Prairie Natural Area can be viewed from the gravel roads bordering it. However, the best way to experience a prairie is to walk out in it. Colors, leaf shapes and flowers vary from one view to the next. Here is the round, spiny seed head for rattlesnake master raised skyward. There is a butterfly visiting a bloom. In August, in some places you can listen and hear and see bees in a startling variety. Some are tiny and others far bigger. Their wings beating out varying buzzing tonal pitches as they visit flowers and serve their valuable role as plant pollinators.
Prairie visitors should plan on using insect repellant. Ticks like the prairie as well as the woodlands. Prairies in late summer can be waist-to-head high and sometimes thick with growth, dress accordingly. Carry water in hot weather. Take your camera. And take your time, the slower you go and the closer you look the more you will see.
For information about Helton Prairie, visit http://nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/places/helton-prairie. The area is east of Bethany and southwest of Mount Moriah. For information about prairies throughout Missouri, visit http://mdc.mo.gov.