Plants that are native to Missouri and Kansas — from our mighty oaks to brilliant wildflowers — support songbirds, monarch butterflies and other treasured wildlife. They also beautify home landscapes, city streets and parks, and can be used to manage stormwater, store carbon in the ground via complex root systems, and support pollinators. And if those weren’t enough virtues — I’ve got more: There are native plants for every gardening situation, from dry, rocky locations to poorly drained areas.
At the time it gained statehood, Missouri was blanketed with at least 15 million acres of tallgrass prairie — about a third of the state. Prairie here, and in Kansas, was part of the great North American prairie ecosystem that stretched from Ohio to the Rockies, north into Canada, and south to Mexico. Forty-eight percent of Jackson County was covered in prairie grasses and wildflowers. Today, there are fewer than 51,000 scattered prairie acres remaining in Missouri, with once vast landscapes converted to agriculture and other development.
Groups such as the Missouri Prairie Foundation, other land trusts and state agencies are protecting as much remaining, original, unplowed prairie and other habitats like forests, woodlands, glades and wetlands in the greater Kansas City area as possible — while they still exist to save. These natural communities provide vital habitat for pollinating insects, songbirds and other wildlife as well as perform carbon-capture, stormwater management and other services that benefit us.
These remnant wild spaces are also sources of seeds for the native plant industry. Purchasing native trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and other natives from native plant businesses to use in our yards, farms, businesses, schools and parks can restore ecological function to the metro area.
There are native plants that are compatible with every landscaping need and gardening condition. Natives adapted to dry rocky glades, for instance, are the same plants that work well in rock gardens or in the dry, poor soils in many urban parking lot borders. And wetland plants, evolved to tolerate periods of flood and drought, can be used in rain gardens, bioswales and other areas to slow and filter stormwater.
Native landscaping can be informal, such as a native wildflower meadow in a backyard. It can also be formal, with compact species such as butterfly milkweed and wild blue indigo adding front yard beauty for you and food sources for pollinating insects, monarch butterflies, and more.
Many municipalities are using natives to convert unused turf areas into wildflower meadows to beautify parks, reduce mowing costs and provide pollinator and songbird habitat. Stormwater managers use prairie and wetland plants with complex root systems (some reaching 15 feet deep) to hold enormous amounts of stormwater, and to trap nitrogen and other nutrients that can pollute city-owned ponds and lakes.
There simply aren’t enough acres of intact natural habitats “out there” to sustain nature’s services that benefit us, nor to feed and fledge monarch butterflies, warblers and all the other animals that add to a community’s livability factor. We must make our human-scapes as habitable as possible, and restore nature’s web of life from the bottom up. That foundation is native plants. Happy gardening.
Carol Davit is executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation and its Grow Native! program. Native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses, sedges and vines will be available for purchase Sept. 18 at the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center at the Missouri Prairie Foundation native plant sale. Find many free resources on native landscaping from the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program at grownative.org. Learn more about Missouri’s prairie heritage and how you can be involved in protecting it at moprairie.org.