It’s another 90-degree day with 80 percent humidity, but under a native and stately canopy inside the Parkville Nature Sanctuary it’s surprisingly pleasant with a slight breeze. Seeds of cottonwood float through the tree-filtered air like tiny parachutes drifting so slowly they appear to be headed neither up nor down.
Much of the 116-acre preserve is shaded by oak and hickory that tower highest along the meandering White Alloe Creek. Not only do the trees partially shade the Old Kate and White-Tail trails, but they also furnish essential habitat for countless species and clean the air and water.
This wooded setting brimming with biodiversity served a key role in the Missouri Department of Conservation’s mission to safeguard the habitats of fish, forest and wildlife, while providing opportunities for everyone to connect with nature and enjoy these ecosystems.
While the Missouri Department of Conservation owns a 68-acre tract in the area, the wildlife preserve is maintained by the City of Parkville.
Cydney Ross, a native landscape specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, led a guided hike through a wildflower garden and into the hardwood forest, where several nature play areas beacon visitors to lose themselves in the uniqueness of nature.
Berry-producing mulberry trees and late season pawpaw trees were the first fruit-bearing trees identified at the start of the hike.
“Pawpaw trees, dubbed Missouri’s native banana, are a common understory tree in our state that serve as an indicator of a quality woodland. They grow beneath the shade of bigger trees and produce oblong fruit in early fall,” said Alix Daniel, a vice president of the mycological chapter.
Pawpaw trees were once prominent throughout the Midwest, but over time their presence has declined due to development and the introduction of non-native species. Their ripe fruit supply squirrels, foxes, birds, and raccoons with a nutrient-dense food source. Also, people enjoy the fruit’s meaty flesh, describing the taste as mango custard with a hint of banana.
“Native trees and plants have evolved with our local fauna for thousands of years,” said Ross. “Their presence has existed with insects, mammals, and birds since the Ice Age, so they have a very intricate relationship with each other.”
The zebra-swallowtail butterflies, for example, lay their eggs on the underside of pawpaw leaves and depend on native species for their own survival. Other larvae native host plants include common milkweed, turtlehead, sunflowers, coneflowers, and pipevine.
While the MDC isn’t exactly sure what percentage of the plants in the sanctuary are native species, Ross says great lengths are taken to minimize the threat posed by non-native species. Bush honeysuckle, one of the more prevalent invasive species inside the sanctuary, is kept at bay with hard pruning and herbicide spray.
Bush honeysuckle, native to eastern Asia, was introduced for ornamental landscaping and erosion control. This exotic bush has had a negative impact on native fauna and has been deemed public enemy number one.
“Zero insects use bush honeysuckle as a larvae host plant and it lacks nutritional value for insects, so it has zero biological pressure to keep it in check,” said Ross.
Honeysuckle also emerges first in the spring and shade surrounding flora, threatening native plants. Unlike Missouri’s native counterpart, bush honeysuckle releases chemicals that inhibit the growth of new plants and spread easily to other areas.
Kristen Bontrager, the director of the sanctuary and co-host of the guided trail hike, is committed to protecting the woodland from becoming overrun by invasive plants.
“Pretty much anything that we find to be invasive, we come up with a strategy to fend off,” said Bontrager.
Bontrager and a part-time volunteer are tasked with affording native plants protection and maintaining the 116-acre reserve, along with the memorial garden that host 1,000 pollinators. But her work doesn’t stop there. She spreads mulch at the Sullivan Nature Sanctuary located along Rush Creek and hosts nature camps to connect children with their natural surroundings.
As the 23-member hiking group crossed a slow-moving creek, Ross explained the subtle indicator of healthy water.
“A good way to test the water quality of streams, creeks, rivers, and the like, is to see what macroinvertebrates are living in the water. So, this would be damselfly larvae, crawdads, and any other visible insect or crayfish.”
Generally, pulling out macroinvertebrates with a net strongly indicates high quality water.
“There are macroinvertebrates that are called “indicator species,” because they rely on clean water to live in.” If the water is heavy polluted these types of insects will not be present, she said.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the water in Kansas City is heavily polluted from stormwater runoff in neighborhoods and (fertilizer runoff) in agriculture fields,” said Ross.
During the two-hour adventure, one hiker in the group spotted a bat hidden in the rafters of the Girl Scout Cabin. While bats have a stigma about them, they help keep the number of pesky mosquitoes down.
Accordingly, bats are better at zeroing in on mosquitoes than pest control companies, which use “super toxic” chemicals which kill off all living insects, including fireflies, bees, butterflies, and yes, existing mosquitoes, until new larvae hatches, said Ross.
The best kept secret to stomping out mosquitoes is treating bird baths and drainage areas with mosquito dunks that contain a naturally occurring bacterium, she said.
Surprisingly, the hilly viewpoint from the cabin revealed little misfortunes from recent wind and lightning. A towering chinkapin oak must have endured the storm and the external force of gravity. The sheer size of the century-old tree was magnified by a member of the group who was leaning up against it.
For trees, it is common for many of their branches to become severed over time. Within a 12-month period, that surface will be virtually scarless and covered with a new layer.
Before the group circled back to the impressive waterfall in White Alloe Creek, walkers were led past the more prosaic amenities, as well as a patch of wildflowers teeming with butterflies and bees. While wildflowers have been considered weedy and less aesthetically desirable, conservationists are hoping to change this perception. Unless homeowners and business owners select the wrong wildflower for their designed area, these plants are often a beneficial choice for local ecosystems.
“The more native plants you have the healthier your environment is going to be. The healthier the environment you have, the healthier people are going to be. That connection is directly linked and backed up by science.
“One of my favorite wildflowers is the baptisia australis, more commonly known as blue false indigo. It gets to be about three- feet tall and blooms bright blue flowers in May. Blue false indigo is the gateway plant to the native plant world,” said Ross.
The Parkville Nature Santuary is located at 100 E. 12th St. in Parkville.