St. Louis After biologists discovered a hidden prairie in the 1990s at Calvary Cemetery, they ended up with quite a storyline: The last remnants of native tall grasses left in the metro area could show what more than a third of Missouri looked like when settlers arrived.
And there the 25-acre prairie was, protected all this time from agricultural development like a secret garden, in north St. Louis.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis, which owns the cemetery, eventually agreed to set aside the land for 100 years, with the help of experts in the field to conserve and restore it.
Hundreds of youth and volunteers showed up to see the fruits of virgin soil.
“In the midst of the dead is a gift from the past to future generations,” The Economist magazine reported in 2009 about the prairie.
But after initial waves of excitement and urgency to save the prairie, interest in the project has nearly disappeared.
“We were so excited about this possibility, we kind of made the mistake of putting the cart before the horse,” said Erin Shank, an urban wildlife biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation who helps manage the prairie. “Folks were really interested in seeing it and being involved. What they saw was pretty pitiful.”
Unlike the unspoiled grassland that early inhabitants of St. Louis would have encountered, the lot had been overrun by thorny locust trees and invasive plants such as Japanese honeysuckle and crown vetch that choke out native vegetation.
While the existing patches of original prairie needed to be restored, other areas had to be reconstructed by planting hundreds of pounds of native grasses and wildflower seeds, many of which are in bloom today.
“I have been sitting back and holding my breath, hoping we would get to this point that it was worth talking about,” Shank said. “I feel as though that this growing season we have turned a corner on this project. We have a living prairie there for people to see. Before we had a remnant stand on its deathbed.”
“I feel as though that this growing season we have turned a corner on this project. We have a living prairie there for people to see. Before we had a remnant stand on its deathbed.”Erin Shank
Pockets of sunflowers and big bluestem grass tower more than 10 feet in places. Root systems for some plants run deeper, giving lush prairies the capacity to soak up water run-off from parking lots and other impervious surfaces five times their size, according to one study.
The vegetation draws an abundance of fungi, insects, critters and birds. This time of year at the Calvary Cemetery prairie, bug chatter can compete with the noise of freight trains and low-flying jets. Ninety-one species of bees have been found there.
Shank, though, says the restoration work isn't finished.
Woody vegetation and many more weeds need to be removed. Just one giant thistle plant can wreak havoc on the effort. Lawnmowers are blown clean before cutting prairie paths to prevent contamination seeds.
“All it takes is for a bird flying in there and pooping out some honeysuckle seeds and you have a problem,” said Shank.
The project has also been threatened by diminished awareness and interest.
About five to 10 people a year show up at the cemetery for the sole purpose of finding the prairie in the northwest corner, and they are either nature enthusiasts, professors or conservation officials from other states, said Matt DeWitt, who helps run cemeteries for the archdiocese.
“A lot of people look at it and they think it's an oversight on our part,” he said. “They think we have forgotten to mow the grass and let it grow over. We just tell them that this is land that we have set aside to preserve grasses of the great prairie.”
A conservation and restoration plan in place by 2005 included the archdiocese, The Nature Conservancy, Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Botanical Garden and The Green Center. The plan called for an “intensive commitment” to save the prairie “immediately.”
"A lot of people look at it and they think it's an oversight on our part. They think we have forgotten to mow the grass and let it grow over. We just tell them that this is land that we have set aside to preserve grasses of the great prairie."Matt Dewitt
Through the partnership, the plan stated, “a window into the original character of the region can be conserved and enhanced. … while showcasing a model of ecological restoration and community involvement in an urban landscape.”
Other than the conservation department and a contractor hired by the state to help take care of the land, the partnership hasn't officially met in years.
School trips have fallen off.
“There has been no unified long-term commitment that says lets keep pushing this,” said Doug Ladd, former director of conservation at The Nature Conservancy in St. Louis. “Restoration is like raising a child. You need to be constantly engaged and intensively working for 20 to 25 years to get good results.”
In a 2003 survey, Ladd and others identified 131 native plant species on the restoration site, a fraction of its original glory. While sections of the lot have been reconstructed through seeding, he said, the diversity of native plants from the original prairie "is extremely low" and has shrunk since the survey.
He said the prairie currently offers a mere "glimpse" of what it used to be centuries ago, "much like a dirty stained glass window can still give hints of the original beauty and complexity."
Fire is desperately needed to help kill invasive plants and support the growth of native vegetation. The last burn was in 2008.
“It's going to need many burns over the next decade to turn the tide,” Ladd said, adding: “I still think it could be a model for how a metropolitan area stewards, recognizes and celebrates its heritage.”
As more time passes, with invasive plants held at bay, it will be tougher for weeds and locust trees to threaten the story.
Until then, the prairie may not look exactly like it did when Auguste Chouteau, Dred Scott, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and surveyor general Antoine Soulard came through town. But their graves are nearby for purists to draw the connection.