A walk in the park is the perfect antidote to cure the blues after 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 in Gray Summit.
Owned 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 glades.
The wildflowers continue in waves through the summer and climax in late August when the giant Maximilian sunflowers that stand eight feet tall over the prairie. “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; however, there’s always something to see. If people came every two weeks, that would be the way to visit the Nature Reserve.”
The Country Cousin
Shaw Nature Reserve 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 St. Louis.
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 southwest of St. Louis, along the Meramec River. Today, the site is just off Interstate 44, at the Gray Summit exit.
In the late 1930s, a smoke abatement ordinance curbed the air pollution in St. Louis. Plans to move the main botanical garden were canceled, but Shaw Nature Reserve, then called the Arboretum, remained as the garden’s country cousin.
While the Missouri 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 trees and invasive honeysuckles have been thinned to restore the open woodlands, where tall trees stand apart with an understory of wildflowers and grasses.
Controlled 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, fires set by American Indians and early settlers, to keep the land clear.
“Fire was their tool, their bulldozer, to manage the landscape,” Behrer said. “Tall-grass prairie wouldn’t have existed in Missouri if the American Indians had not set fires. If we stopped burning and mowing, it would all go back to woodlands and we would lose a lot of diversity.”
Shaw’s other primary mission is education. It provides a variety of programs for adults and children, with the Nature Reserve serving as an outdoor classroom. “We 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 much.”
A Hike to the River
One of the most popular places to start a walk is the restored Bascom House, an elegant two-story brick home built by a Confederate colonel in 1879. The house sits in a grove of stately oaks, next to the five-acre Whitmire Wildflower Garden. That garden displays some 700 species of plants as a showcase for professional landscapers and home gardeners.
The trail through the wildflower garden leads across a small pond – one of several established for amphibians over the years – 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.
“That area 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. “The bottomland 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 there.”
After a rest on the wide gravel bar beside 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 miles.
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 light.
Shaw Nature Reserve continues to be a hiker’s delight during the cold months. “The 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 then; the solitude is nice.”
Maps and guides for the Nature Reserve are available in the Visitor Center. Admission is $5; ages 65+ and students, $3; age 12 and younger, free.
Tom Uhlenbrock is a staff writer for Missouri State Parks.