Eastern Red Cedar Program
The eastern red cedar rapidly colonizes and takes over recently opened-up habitats. SNR had a long history, previous to the purchase of the property by the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1925, of logging, grazing, and agriculture. The many cedars here are a sign of past ecological disturbance.
With their dense, year-round shade and acidifying needle duff, cedars make the ground beneath them unsuitable for the growth of many other plant species and for the animals that depend on these plants for survival. Reducing the cedar population makes room for these other species to exist. Many attractive wildflowers that were once common at SNR became rarer as the cedar population grew in recent years.
Numerous studies of early historical accounts of plant cover and of the ecological requirements of our native plants and animals show conclusively that before the Euro-American settlement, the native upland vegetation of this part of Missouri was much more open than it is today. The land was covered with a sort of prairie studded with oak and hickory trees called savanna by ecologists. Only in the moistest, most protected sites, such as river flood plains and shaded valleys, did the closed-canopy woodlands we think of as "normal" forest occur.
The reason for this is directly related to human activity. The native Americans that lived here for at least 10,000 years before the arrival of settlers from Europe were truly a part of their environment. They knew the plants and animals of their surroundings well, and had learned not only how to utilize these species for food, fiber, medicine, etc., but also knew how to manage their environment to favor these species. The major management tool in "presettlement" times was annual burning. During dry spells, from late fall through early spring, the native Americans set fire to the fields and savannas, which could then spread unchecked for miles and miles. In open areas, the flames reached up to 30 feet high and rushed roaring and crackling through the tall dead grass and flower stalks. In the wooded areas, the grassy understory was shorter and didn't dry out as quickly, mulched as it was by fallen tree leaves, so the fires crept lower and more slowly across the land. In wet years, fires burned irregularly, often not even entering the shaded areas.
The thinning of cedar stands at SNR during winter months is an ecological management tool which complements use of fire, and is meant to set back ecological changes set forth by the arrival of Europeans to this area in the early 1800s. The newcomers brought an end to the "fire management" of the ecosystem carried out by the earlier human settlers of this continent. The "thickening" of the woodlands and the shading and crowding out of a large number of plant species and the animals that depend upon them has necessitated the cutting of some trees and the reintroduction of controlled burning. These practices will enable us to regain the pristine beauty and biological richness of the Reserve's relatively tiny island of natural vegetation in a sea of agriculture and development.
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