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The Look and Life of the Prairie

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

Rex and Amy Hamilton live on a 750-acre farm near Houston, Mo. Like many of their neighbors they raise cattle, but they also grow prairie grasses and native wildflowers.

The Hamiltons sell prairie grass seed to a wide range of customers, from farmers seeking warm-season forage for their cattle to managers who need resilient plantings for golf courses. Rural landowners may buy grass and flowers to reestablish prairie on their land or for wildlife, while homeowners simply decorate their yards with islands of wildflowers.

The Hamiltons first saw a need for native grasses in rotation with fescue grass for grazing cattle when both of them worked for the Soil Conservation Service. Later they noticed how well wildflowers grew among native grasses, and realized the flowers were also an important part of the mix of native plants.

About eight years ago the Hamiltons built a small lake behind their house. Amy planted native grasses on the banks of the lake, then she decided also to plant some native flowers around the lake and began looking for flower seed. Her search turned into a flourishing business that sees the Hamiltons now selling about 60 varieties of wildflowers and 10 varieties of grasses.

The Hamiltons have about 30 acres of flowers and 125 acres of native grasses on land that was once a natural savanna. Most of their seeds and plants are sold in the Midwest, but they have a small catalog and get orders from as far away as the East Coast. The catalog includes information on planting and managing native plants and grasses. They sell seed, bare roots and potted plants for flowers and seed and bare roots for native grasses. A handful of other Missouri growers are also producing native grasses and plants, plants that benefit wildlife.

The banks of the pond behind the house are dry, but native plants have taken hold there. We often think of the historical Ozarks as unbroken miles of forests, but in truth much of it was savanna - trees scattered through grasslands - and dry, rocky glades. Amy Hamilton points out that tall grasses, like big bluestem, may produce the most dependable seed crop on deep prairie soils, but that the shorter grasses, like little bluestem and Indian grass, grow well on dry south- and west-facing Ozark slopes.

The Hamiltons collect seed on their own farm, but also travel widely collecting grass and flower seed. They collect seed with a

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