More species of plants exist in the Ozark Highlands — one of the oldest mountain ranges on the planet — than anywhere in the lower Midwest. Why? Because the Ozarks are an ancient crossroads for migrating plants. They are a tapestry of plants, uprooted and on the run from ever-changing climate and advancing glaciers.
Over the years, many plants and animals migrated to the warmer climate of the Ozarks as they were pushed south and west by advancing glaciers. As the climate warmed, and glaciers retreated back north, most cool-loving species followed.
But some species, called glacial relics, stayed behind. They found refuge in the bottoms of cool sinkholes, north-facing slopes, box canyons and wetland fens. To this day, glacially disconnected animals such as wood frogs and four-toed salamanders still hang out in these cool, moist, shady safe havens, while the majority of their population exists far to the north and east. The same is true of plants.
Plants adapt to new home
Queen-of-the-prairie and Ridell’s goldenrod both live in wetland fens. Harebell and white camas cling to north-facing bluffs along the Jacks Fork River. These are disconnected species because they exist beyond or at the edge of their natural ranges.
According to Julian Steyermark, author of “The Flora of Missouri,” many other plants have found a second home in the Ozarks, beyond or at the edge of their normal ranges — including tall larkspur, barren strawberry, soapweed, dwarf crested iris, common witch hazel, beautyberry, mountain azalea, rose turtlehead, yellowwood, limber honeysuckle, Texas greeneyes and dense blazingstar.
But what about the plants that originally came from the Ozark crossroads, and never left home known to horticulturalists as endemic? They apparently began to evolve there and continue to evolve.
Native plants that last
Not quite as old, but pretty old nevertheless, these common garden plants endemic to the Ozarks include woodland spiderwort, Fremont’s leatherflower, little-flower alumroot, Ozark witch hazel, Bush’s poppy mallow, shining bluestar, purple beard-tongue, cliff goldenrod, Missouri black-eyed Susan and yellow coneflower, to name a few.
So, if you are taken by the origin stories of native plants, like I am, then pick up a few Ozark native plants the next time you are at a garden center or plant sale near you. They have been around a long, long time, and chances are, they will continue to hang on, deep in the Ozark Highlands, and possibly in your yard. Happy gardening!
Woodbury is a horticulturalist and curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve. He also is an adviser to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program.