Points of Interest:
• One of the last deep soil tallgrass prairie remnants in Missouri.
• One of only a few prairies left in Missouri to support the rare western prairie fringed orchid.
• Outstanding prairie wildflower viewing from spring through fall.
Natural History: This upland prairie is a rare vestige of the deep soil tallgrass prairies that blanketed much of north Missouri. This mesic prairie has developed on deep silt and clay loam soils formed from loess and glacial till. Because of the fertility of these prairie soils nearly all of them have been converted to agricultural production. The Midwest is the “breadbasket of the world” in large part due to the tallgrass prairie that covered it. The “black soils” of the Corn Belt are prairie soils that developed under thousands of years of soil enrichment from prairie plants.
At Helton Prairie you will catch a glimpse of what many early European settlers found in Missouri north of the Missouri River. Helton Prairie supports characteristic prairie plants of upland prairies (e.g, rattlesnake master, pale purple coneflower, prairie blazing star, rigid goldenrod, lead plant, compass plant, and white prairie clover) but also an abundance of more moisture-loving prairie plants such as bunch flower, tall coreopsis, sweet coneflower, closed gentian, water hemlock, Culver’s root, and water parsnip. One thing to note is how tall the prairie plants grow here by mid-summer. Even more amazing is how deep the roots of many of these prairie plants go down into the deep soils below. For example, the roots of big bluestem can plunge nine feet below the surface and compass and lead plants have root systems that can extend up to 14 feet deep! These deep root systems enable prairie plants to tap into subsoil moisture and survive droughts.
Western prairie fringed orchid, listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, occurs at this site. This species is restricted to mesic prairie and as its habitat has sharply declined, so has this orchid species. Western prairie fringed orchids are pollinated by hawkmoths of the family Sphingidae The orchid flowers are white, heavily scented and possess spurs containing nectar – all characteristics of flowers adapted to pollination by night-flying insects. The orchids depend on the hawkmoths but not vise-versa. If the hawkmoths decline due to habitat loss or application of certain pesticides then the orchid would have problems too. This is but one example of the often intricate relationships in natural communities.
From Mount Moriah travel south and east on Highway 136 approximately 4 miles and turn left (east) on Highway CC. Follow Highway CC for 3 miles then turn right (east) on to East 315th Street. Head east on East 315th Street for 1.7 miles to the corner with East 312th Avenue. The northwest corner of the prairie is on the southeast side of this intersection. Park on the side of the gravel road and walk into the prairie. Hunting is permitted.