Missouri Wildflowers Put on a Show at Shaw
Gray Summit, Mo. – A
walk in the park is the perfect antidote for a long,
cold winter, especially if it’s a hike through the
wildflower-filled woods, wetlands, glades, prairies and
bottomland forests of Shaw Nature Reserve.
by the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Nature Reserve is
a 2,440-acre diverse landscape – which means an equally
diverse mixture of plants and animals – with 14 miles of
trails to explore it all.
The blooms start in
April when the spring sun warms the forest floor and
coaxes the trillium, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot,
phlox and other “spring ephemerals” to appear. The
orange glow of Indian paintbrush brings color to the
The wildflowers continue in waves through
the summer and climax in late August with the giant
Maximilian sunflowers that stand 8 feet tall over the
“Early June is really nice on the
glades, especially when the coneflowers are blooming,”
said John Behrer, director of the Nature Reserve. “The
prairies get going in summer and early fall, when the
asters are beautiful.”
One of the Nature Reserve’s spectacular
floral displays is the thousands of daffodils that bloom in April on the
slopes around Pinetum Lake. Several varieties of the
plants have naturalized from bulbs that were planted in
the 1930s and 1940s.
Another dazzling show occurs
about the same time on the river bottoms in the open understory beneath the big
trees. A carpet of Virginia bluebells, in shades ranging
from pink to baby blue, with the occasional
yellow bouquet of celandine poppies, extends as far as
the eye can see.
“Blooming could be a bit later this year
because winter slowed things down,” Behrer said. “Visitors can call
here to find out what is in bloom. But there’s always
something to see. If people came every two weeks, that
would be the way to visit the Nature
Shaw Nature Reserve (636-451-3512, ShawNature.org)
is named for Henry Shaw,
a successful businessman with a passion for botany. He
opened the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1859 on his
country estate, which is now surrounded by the City of
In the early 1900s, the St. Louis air
was thick with soot and smoke that damaged plant life,
and the Garden’s board began looking for rural property
as a refuge for the plant collection. In 1925, the board
decided on an expanse of rolling fields and hardwood
forest 35 miles west of St. Louis on the Meramec River.
Today, the site is just off Interstate 44 at the Gray
In the late 1930s, a smoke abatement
ordinance curbed the air pollution in St. Louis. Plans
to move the botanical garden were canceled, but Shaw
Nature Reserve, then called the Arboretum, remained as
the garden’s country cousin.
Botanical Garden displays formal beds of plants and
exotic species, the mission of Shaw Nature Reserve is to
return the landscape to what the first settlers found
when they arrived.
“We’re trying to restore and
maintain the natural landscapes that existed
historically,” Behrer said. “We know we can’t re-create
everything that was here 500 years ago. There are pieces
of the puzzle that are missing, and pieces here that
shouldn’t be here.”
Over the last 30 years,
nearly 350 acres of abandoned farm fields have been
replanted as prairie. Forests choked with cedar and
invasive honeysuckle have been thinned to restore the
open woodlands, where tall trees stand apart with an
understory of wildflowers and grasses.
burns are used to keep out exotic species, nourish the
native plants and prevent cedars from invading the
prairies, glades and woods. The burns mimic natural
fires caused by lightning and fires set by Native
Americans, and later settlers, to keep the land
“Fire was their tool, their bulldozer, to
manage the landscape,” Behrer said. “Tall-grass prairie
wouldn’t have existed in Missouri if the Native
Americans had not set fires. If we stopped burning or
mowing, it would all go back to woodlands, and we would
lose a lot of diversity.”
Shaw’s other primary
mission is education and it provides a variety of
programs for both adults and children, with the Nature
Reserve serving as an outdoor classroom.
could restore Shaw to the nth degree,” Behrer said, “but
if we don’t use it to change how people think about the
natural world, we haven’t accomplished
A Hike to the
Maps and guides to the Nature Reserve
are available in the Visitor Center at the entrance.
Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors.
One of the most popular places to start a walk is at the
restored Bascom House, an elegant two-story brick home
built by a Confederate colonel in 1879.
house sits in a grove of stately oaks next to the
five-acre Whitmire Wildflower Garden, which displays
some 700 species of plants as a showcase for
professional landscapers and home gardeners.
trail through the wildflower garden leads over a small
pond, one of several established for amphibians over the
years, and into an oak-hickory woodlands, crossing two
small streams. It opens onto the prairie, and looks out
onto a glade before descending the bluffs to the
bottomland woods on the flood plain.
down to the Meramec is more like the Ozarks that people
generally think of – it’s more rugged than the upper
part of the reserve, which is rolling prairie similar to
northern Missouri,” Behrer said.
forest has been designated a Natural Area by the
Missouri Department of Conservation because it still has
the characteristics of the original forest. There are
some huge sycamores and cottonwoods down
After a rest on the wide gravel bar along
the river, the hike can head back on a different route,
maybe detour to visit the wetlands and its 300-foot
boardwalk, for a looping walk of about six
While the first frost brings the curtain
down on the wildflower show, autumn ignites the sumac
and the oak-hickory forest while the tall grasses glow
russet and gold in the morning and evening
But Shaw Nature Reserve continues to be a
hiker’s delight during the cold months.
prairies are beautiful when it’s hot in July and August,
but I also like it out here in winter,” Behrer said. “I
especially like to walk when snow is falling. It’s so
peaceful and quite, and you see all the animal tracks.
There are not a lot of people; the solitude is
Tom Uhlenbrock is a staff writer for
Missouri State Parks.
Missouri Division of Tourism
Missouri Division of Tourism (MDT) is the official
tourism office for the state of Missouri dedicated to
marketing Missouri as a premier travel destination.
Established in 1967, the Missouri Division of Tourism
has worked hard to develop the tourism industry in
Missouri to what it is today, an $11 billion industry
supporting more than 281,000 jobs. For more information
on Missouri tourism, go to http://www.VisitMO.com.
Stephen Foutes, Communications Manager
Division of Tourism
Stephanie Lynch, PR and Social Media Manager
Tourism News Bureau