ST. LOUIS – A fire burned hot and fast on the north edge of Calvary Cemetery on Monday, and that’s okay, it was supposed to.
“Fire really does help promote the growth of those native, prairie plants,” said Erin Shank, an urban wildlife biologist.
Shank and her team at the Missouri Department of Conservation set a controlled fire in the historic remnant prairie they manage for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the last of its kind in the St. Louis metro area.
“This has been a prairie historically for a very, very long time, prior to major human settlement, European settlement of this region,” Shank said.
Prairies evolved with the presence of fire.
“Fires that were started by lightning strikes. Also, fires that were started by Native Americans,” Shank said. “Native Americans historically used fire on the landscape for hundreds of years.”
The burning of native grasses and plants returns nutrients to the soil.
“Underneath the soil, they’ve got six-to-twelve-foot rootstock under there,” Shank said. “Those roots will use those nutrients and grow back big and strong in the Spring.”
Fire also helps combat invasive species.
“Those invasive species did not evolve with the presence of fire like prairie plants did, and so that fire will kill them back,” Shank said.
It means less herbicide needs to be used, which is better as the prairie is an oasis for birds, urban mammals, and native insects.
“We’ve found over 100 species of native bees, just here at this 22-acre prairie,” Shank said. “Really, an indication that the plant diversity here is really sustaining a diverse wildlife population as well.”
Shank said all went well on Monday, but they had to be patient. Recent windy and dry conditions forced them to delay the burn by several weeks.
Visitors are welcome to visit the Calvary Cemetery and the native prairie any day of the year.