Native Oak Savanna is a Treasure in Forest Park

By Linda Wiggen Kraft

It is no surprise that Forest Park was the number one urban park in the country in a recent nation-wide survey. There are many treasures in Forest Park. One that isn’t well known is the five plus acre Kennedy Woods Savanna located up a small hill, next to Skinker Blvd just south of Probstein golf course near Northwood Ave. Similar to a prairie, a savanna is mostly open native grasses with some flowering plants and scattered trees throughout. There is great plant diversity due to shifting sun and shade patterns. Low plants to tall trees provide food and shelter to insects, birds and other animals.

The Kennedy Woods Savanna has many special features. For humans the beauty of the large open area with grasses and flowering plants embraced by nearby large old oak trees feels comfortable and inviting. Research has shown that humans all over the world feel most comfortable and at home in landscapes of open savannas with scattered trees nearby.

Another treasure of this unique and precious savanna is the soil. A 1986 research study revealed that of the pre-settlement 27-32 million acres of savanna in all Midwest states, in 1985 less than 6500 acres remained. All but 100 acres were on dry, sandy or rocky soils. No state reported any examples left of high quality deep soil savannas, one reason it’s even more important to rebuild one amid the the deep rich soil and large old growth oaks of Kennedy Woods.

A vision took root in 1998 with Ken Cohen, a founding member of the Kennedy Woods Advisory Group, to reconstruct a high quality savanna in Forest Park where experts believe a deep soil savanna once grew. St. Louis City and Forest Park Forever approved the project. A grant from the Missouri Prairie Foundation hired restoration biologist Gary Schimmelpfenig with DJM Ecological Servies to reconstruct the savanna with the help of volunteers. Seed was collected from remnant native plant populations and made ready for planting. On May 2, 1999 a celebration to bring this deep soil savanna back to life was held. Volunteers scattered the treasure of collected native plant seeds on bare ground. They grew and brought other wildlife to the site including Indigo Buntings who nested there for the first time in twenty years of record keeping.

Recently another celebration and planting took place. On April 30, 2016 over 50 adult and children volunteers gathered while Schimmelpfenig shared information and music. Volunteers then got to work planting the newly grown treasure of over 1500 small plant plugs of a rare Little Bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium), along with some Eastern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa) Several hundred Marsh Milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata) will hopefully be planted soon to bring more monarchs and pollinators to this site.

The Kennedy Woods Savanna is a unique native treasure in Forest Park. This savanna needs people to visit, enjoy and love its beauty and life. It also needs human help to remember and restore its nurturing role as a comfortable home for all the plants, creatures and elements that make up this treasure.

Note: If you would like to volunteer to help restore and maintain Kennedy Woods Savanna, please email: gtschimmel@yahoo.com. Thanks to Gary Schimmelpfenig for his work and information. I was fortunate to be part of both 1999 and 2016 celebrations and plantings.

Linda Wiggen Kraft is a landscape designer who creates holistic and organic gardens. She is also a mandala artist and workshop leader. Visit her blog: CreativityForTheSoul.com/blog or website: CreativityForTheSoul.com. Contact her at 314 504-4266