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Hot tip: Fire's the secret to Ha Ha Tonka’s flowers

CAMDENTON, Mo. – Larry Webb is walking through a knee-high carpet of yellow, talking about fire. The yellow is a coneflower, Echinacea paradoxa, that is found only one place in the world, the open glades of the Ozarks.

The flowers are at their peak right now, Webb says. The field is a riot of colors, yellow flowers against green grasses. But there’s a catch: In order for  Echinacea paradoxa to thrive, the ecosystem around it needs to burn.

“Without periodic fire, this would probably be covered with cedar,” said Webb, the naturalist at Ha Ha Tonka State Park.

Ha Ha Tonka, on the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri, has more than 500 plant species, making it one of the state’s prettiest, and most biologically diverse parks.

Fire plays a major role in maintaining that diverse color show.

Ha Ha Tonka is among 25 state parks where periodic fires, known as prescribed burns, are used, said Ken McCarty, chief of the natural resources management section of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Division of State Parks. Some 38,000 acres are burned at regular intervals, most about once every three to five years.

Prescribed burns are not the wildfires that get into the trees and cover hundreds or thousands of acres at a time, reducing trees to tinder and making the soil sterile. They’re designed to be cool, low-intensity fires that clear out an area’s understory – the small, weak plants that take nutrients from other plants and trees and, which left unchecked, can take over an area.

Historically, the landscape at Ha Ha Tonka included large expanses of glades shaded only by the occasional chinkapin and blackjack oak, stunted by the rocky soils. Widely separated oaks and black hickories grew in the woods around them. The grasses and wildflowers beneath the big trees created a park-like setting called a savanna. Ferns and mosses thrived in the moist, green hollows.

Such landscapes have become exceedingly rare.

Lightning strikes and fires set by Native Americans, settlers and later residents of the Ozarks burned the land, keeping the woodlands open and preventing cedars from overtaking the glades. Carefully managed burns are used to mimic those early conditions.

“Our primary mission is to preserve the many kinds of Missouri’s native natural landscape,” McCarty said. “So much of what we think of as Missouri’s natural heritage is partially a product of fire.”

“At Ha Ha Tonka, there are hundreds of species, plants and animals, all tied to an open grassy or thinly timbered-style of landscape,” McCarty said. “Some of the most glamorous and dramatic – the yellow coneflower, the Indian paintbrush – are heavily dependent on fire to prevent tree cover from blocking the sunlight they need.”

Fire management on about 2,000 acres at Ha Ha Tonka preserves a list of blooming wildflowers that includes sensitive briar, coreopsis, purple coneflower, purple prairie clover, lead plant, bird’s food violet, orange puccoon, rose vervain, cream wild indigo, spiderwort,  phlox, pale beardtongue, black-eyed Susan and a bouquet of others.

“Later in the summer you’ll see the blazing stars, with the big, showy purple bloom, followed by prairie dock and compass plant, which have tall yellow flowers,” said Webb. The diverse landscape means not only more plants, but more insects and animals. Allison Vaughn, natural resource steward with the department, did a two-year bird survey in the park. Between May 23 and June 23, she recorded 52 species a day.

Ha Ha Tonka is the best park for birding because of the harmonious landscape, which goes from glade to woodland to savanna,” Vaughn said.  “If the plant diversity is not there, then you don’t have insect diversity and, thus, you don’t have the birds.”