When it Comes to Native Plants, Fire Can Be a Good Thing

Like a Phoenix up from the ashes scenario, regular controlled burning of plots of native plants helps to eliminate unwanted and invasive species, enabling the deep-rooted natives to thrive. Plant communities historically were shaped by naturally occurring fire events in a survival of the fittest scheme.

Blair Crosby,MU’s manager of landscape operations, and a dozen members of MU LandscapeServices staff did a controlled burn on one of the native plant plots on the MU campus.

Blair Crosby, MU’s manager of landscape operations, and a dozen members of MU Landscape Services staff did the first of a series of small, prescribed burns at the south end of the MU campus in December 2023. The area they burned is an established planting of native grasses.  


Crosby explained that there is a burn permit process in Columbia to let the city know where and when you plan to burn. On campus, he let the fire marshal know and that information was shared with joint communications.


“But, despite our best efforts, there are community spotters and the fire department usually shows up,” he said.


Fire is an alarming occurrence. Crosby said the burns are not done randomly. He is very careful to take weather and wind into consideration and to follow best-prescribed burn practices. He worked with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), and with Rich Freidan, a retired landscape gardener with extensive experience in controlled burns, to learn the process.


“You wait for wind to come from the right direction, or for no wind. Winds have to be under 10 miles per hour and gusts can be no more than 12 miles per hour. Humidity needs to be at 50 to 60 percent,” Crosby said. “We take wind direction and then start with a backburn on the side the wind is blowing toward. Then we go to the leading edge and start the fire and let the two come together.”


Crosby’s next prescribed burns will be on campus plots he is turning from fescue turf to native pollinator habitat, a project launched in 2021 by an MDC Community Conservation Grant.  Totaling approximately 4.2 acres, the three plots include an acre near old village heights along Providence, three acres on East Campus by the Animal Science Research Center and the mule barn, though the latter plot currently has been impacted by construction. 


After clearing the turf using an herbicide, Crosby used Mizzou Botanic Garden’s partner, Grow Native! to locate sources for seeds and plants.


“I worked with Hamilton Native Outpost, a native grassland seed company located in Elk Creek, Missouri, to determine what to plant,” he said. “They have a mix generator based on a profile of your site. We wanted a pollinator and wildlife mix.


“We also bought some native plant plugs from Pecosh Landscaping in Kirksville, Mo. My fear was that we needed something to show because seeding doesn’t give you instant plants.


“That first year or two, you don’t see a lot because most of what’s happening is underground,” he said, in reference to the deep-rooted nature of native plants. And while the plantings are coming into their own the rough spots are not always viewed favorably. Crosby said that installing signage should help.



Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta, is one of the few native species that bloomed the second year on Landscape Services’ turf plots turned to native pollinator beds. Native plants are deep-rooted, so a lot of what happens the first few years after planting is happening below ground, allowing them to survive periodic burning, which eliminates unwanted species.r

During the first year after seeding, the plots were mowed three times to a height of six to eight inches to keep the weeds from setting seeds. They selectively killed teasle, Johnson grass, Canadian thistle and clumps of persistent fescue. 


“The second year, we lost a lot plugs due to drought,” Crosby said. “However, we did see cone flower, rudbeckia and some Missouri primrose plants.”


Jerod Huebner, director of prairie management for Missouri Prairie Foundation, another of MUBG’s partners, supplied harvested seeds to help fill in bare spots. Mowing continued and the plots will be burned this spring after school lets out.


Besides the benefit of establishing habitat for beneficial insects, which is on the decline, the plantings reduce weekly mowing activities, saving energy and expenditures. The plots additionally are intended to serve as campus resources for teaching and research on topics such as plant identification, prairie management and urban habitat restoration.


 “You’re really in it for the long haul,” Crosby said of establishing the pollinator plots. “We are pleased with the progress and there are definite possibilities to expand wildflower and native grass into other areas on campus.”