Protected urban prairie tells story of St. Louis’ natural history

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ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Within a place known for remembering the dead, a tract of land is teeming with life.

“It is a wild spot in the middle of the city.”

Tucked away on the north edge of Calvary Cemetery is a little piece of history. It’s not a grave. It’s not even a building.  It is the last remaining prairie remnant in the St. Louis area, and it’s been left untouched for thousands of years.

“That’s thanks to the Archdiocese of St. Louis who has owned this property since the 19th century,” says Erin Shank, an Urban Wildlife Biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The 1849 cholera outbreak led to the need for cemeteries outside city limits. The Archdiocese purchased more than 300 acres in what is today north St. Louis that had been used for cattle grazing for their burial needs. In the 1990s,  24 acres of the property was identified as a prairie remnant and the Missouri Department of Conservation has been working to preserve it ever since.  It is a bit of Missouri in its natural state.

“The rolling hills and the tall grasses, this is really kind of what you would have experienced prior to major European settlement of North America,” says Shank.

Visitors to this native place are welcome and encouraged. There is something to see year-round.

“If you come here in the spring, you’ll see lots of vibrant purples and pinks and reds.  And then as we move into the Fall, really bright yellows with goldenrods and sunflowers. And then we go through this fall season which is really spectacular in its own way.  And into winter when we’ll be talking about using fire on this prairie to help it remain vibrant. And then we’re talking about blackened earth out of which the plants will be reborn.”

And the benefits of preserving a spot like this are numerous.

“Migratory birds absolutely use this, both for nesting as well for stopover spots during their migration.” Shank continues, “The diversity of insects here is phenomenal, bees. So, we have 450 species of native bees in Missouri and we find over 100 of them here.”

And in a city known for flooding, prairies are Mother Nature’s sponge.

“One acre of prairie can absorb up to nine inches of stormwater, of rainfall, in an hour. And so, at a time where, especially in our urban areas, we’re seeing more issues with flooding and severe rain events, we really need to be thinking about employing prairies for their stormwater services.“

The names of those buried at Calvary cemetery fill St. Louis history books, including Dred Scott, Auguste Chouteau, and Tennessee Williams. This peaceful urban prairie tells the other side of the Gateway City’s story.

“So right at this one location, we can see the interweaving of the human and natural history of our region.”

Calvary Cemetery is open every day from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. If visiting the prairie, wear long pants and good walking shoes and don’t forget your binoculars and a good camera.

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