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Uncovering a Gem

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

Missouri’s glades are receiving some exceptional treatment by private landowners and the Missouri Department of Conservation. These small, rocky, thin-soiled openings, once thought to be worthless, are being recognized as valuable island ecosystems that contribute to Missouri’s biodiversity.

Glades support many unique and interesting insects, reptiles, mammals, wildflowers and grasses. They are home to eastern collared lizards, tarantulas and scorpions, and they provide habitat for prickly pear cactus, little bluestem, the smoke tree and Missouri primrose. The federally endangered bladderpod only grows on a small number of limestone glades in southwest Missouri.

Glades also are prized by birders, who visit them in hopes of seeing and hearing roadrunners, indigo buntings, painted buntings and prairie warblers.

In Missouri, glades are found in the southern half of the state and in a few locations north of the Missouri River. Our glades range from as small as a quarter acre to as large as 500 acres.

There are five types of glades in Missouri. Each is categorized by the type of bedrock—limestone, dolomite, sandstone, chert or igneous—beneath it. The bedrock below a glade greatly influences the native vegetation that grows there. Igneous and dolomite glades are the most common glade types in Missouri.

Although their geological foundations may differ, most glades have some features in common. The majority of these specialized habitats are rocky clearings that occur naturally in timbered areas. Most occur on steep, south- and west-facing slopes of hills, where natural forces have created a landscape of protruding or exposed rock formations and thin soil.

The combination of shallow, rocky soils and a southern exposure makes for near desert-like conditions on glades through much of the year. As a result, only plants that can thrive in sunny, droughty conditions survive. Drought-tolerant native grasses, sedges and wildflowers are usually plentiful on healthy glades. The wildflowers usually bloom either in spring or fall, when moisture levels are higher. Trees are generally absent or are stunted on normally functioning glades. This is due to the harsh growing conditions and the extremely dry soils, which set the stage for frequent fires.

Unfortunately, most glades in Missouri don’t function as glades naturally would. Years of fire suppression, overgrazing by livestock and quarrying have led to the destruction or degradation of many glades. What often happens is a dense canopy of trees (eastern red cedar, chinquapin, black and post oak) forms that crowds out and suppresses the sun-loving native grasses and wildflowers of a glade.

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