By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
MINDENMINES, Mo. —
Prairie State Park naturalist Dana Hoisington knelt on a path and, his face just inches from a patch of a plant called horse nettle, examined a gob of spit.
Or so it seemed.
“Inside that gob of what looks like bubbling spit is the nymph of a frog hopper,” Hoisington predicted. “It’s a type of spittlebug, and that stuff comes out of its butt. It’s a defense against predators.”
Hoisington cupped the plant in one hand and, with the other, gently pulled the spittle off in order to examine it.
“Yep, see, there it is,” he said of the tiny insect. “Pretty smart. How many predators would be poking around in a gob of spit? Only a naturalist.”
Hoisington returned the nymph and its spittle to the plant and walked on.
“Now that you know what it looks like, you’ll be spotting it everywhere,” he promised.
He was right. A half-dozen more signs of the nymph’s presence were evident along the quarter-mile section of Drover Trail he walked Tuesday morning.
So were signs of mammals, crustaceans and birds, and dozens of species of native prairie plants.
“Accounts from early settlers were that this was such a foreign environment,” Hoisington said of the nation’s acres of prairie. “They looked around and said, ‘There’s nothing here.’ I guess they were like a lot of people now who look at it and say that. But once you get out in it, you’ll find there is incredible, incredible diversity.”
Those tallgrass prairies that the settlers crossed once covered more than a quarter of Missouri; Prairie State Park is part of the last remaining 1 percent. Much of the same diversity still can be found there today: About 85 percent of the 4,000-acre preserve is virgin prairie, meaning it hasn’t be plowed.
“You can’t find that in many places in Missouri anymore, especially on this scale,” said Brian Miller, resources steward for the state park. “It looks like it did 150 years ago. And that’s our goal — to try to take everything man-made out of the picture as much as possible. You’ll feel like you’re in the past here.”
Because the prairie is undisturbed, native wildflowers and other organisms are in abundance. With at least five to 10 new species blooming every week, June and early July are “the prime time to come,” Hoisington said.
Visitors have 14 miles worth of options for hiking across the prairie.
Among them: the one-mile Coyote Trail with access to a backpack camping area and a view of elk in the distance; the 1.5-mile Gayfeather Trail with a view of grazing bison; and the 4.25-mile Sandstone Trail that leads to East Drywood Creek.
The quarter-mile loop portion of Drover Trail is where Hoisington spied the spittlebug Tuesday. The trail is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers, and begins by the front door of the Visitors Center. Its name comes from a time when cowboys drove cattle across the prairie on their way to market.
Hoisington recommends that segment to beginners for a first venture through a prairie. He advised taking along a wildflower field guide and a pair of binoculars. Snacks and drinks are allowed, as long as trash is packed out afterward. He also suggested that hikers wear bug spray, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and close-toed shoes.
Those who want to save a bit of the prairie to admire later also should take along a camera, as picking or digging up Missouri wildflowers is against the law.
Prairie State Park events
10 a.m. — “Perils of the Pollinators.” Many bees, butterflies and moths are declining in numbers. This interactive program will include ways to help.
2 p.m. — “The American Kestrel.” A naturalist, falconer and raptor rehabilitator will present a program about the bird of prey, followed by the release of two kestrels she has been rehabilitating.
Bison hikes are scheduled for 10 to noon on June 22, July 13 and Aug. 10. Participants will learn about bison biology, Native American uses, herd dynamics and prairies. Registration: 417-843-6711.
A wildflower hike is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon on July 6. A naturalist will identify plants and explain prairie ecology.
“Hug a Herp Day” is slated for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on July 20. Visitors will see various reptiles and amphibians, learn about myths, and make a craft to take home.