Runge Conservation Center, Part One

Runge Conservation Center is a 97-acre showcase for Missouri’s native plants and animals. Located about ten minutes drive from downtown Jefferson City, it is one of the many nature parks and preserves operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation. There is a small visitor’s center that presents mounted examples of all the birds and animals likely to be seen in Missouri (including the occasional cougar and quite a few bobcats), as well as a few tanks containing live reptiles. There is also a pleasant area with large picture windows facing into the forest where visitors can observe numerous species of birds enjoying an array of feeders. Outdoors, several miles of pine-needle strewn trails, all heavily shaded by trees, allow hikers to appreciate many varieties of shrubs and trees that flourish in central Missouri.

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium at the park entrance

Fall is the perfect time to visit Runge Center. Not only are the walking trails dry, but there is no oppressive heat within the forested trails, and no squadrons of mosquitos ready to attack hapless hikers. Better yet, the plantings near the visitor’s center show to their best advantage in the fall. As an example, the photo at left  shows an attractive planting of Aromatic Aster ( Symphyotrichum oblongifolium )   surrounded by native grasses and shrubs. Symphyotrichum oblongifolium is native to Missouri, but will do well throughout Zones 5 and 6. Although not as compact as Aster ‘Purple Dome’, if you are looking for a blue-lavender aster that only grows 1′-2′ tall, this is one to consider. The plants have gray-green leaves and spread into nice mounds. Although it is supposed to be susceptible to powdery mildew, I inspected the leaves carefully and there was no evidence of any mildew. Still, the Runge planting was designed for good air circulation,  so that may have made a difference. Aromatic Aster (the leaves are aromatic when crushed), like other asters, is not fussy about soil and is drought tolerant once established.

Two other cultivars of Symphyotrichum oblongifolium are available through nurseries:  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’. The former is a medium blue-lavender aster that grows 2′-3′ tall and spreads about one foot. The latter is a deeper blue than ‘Raydon’s Favorite’, and grows to be about 18″ by 18″. Both varieties are otherwise similar to the species.

Callicarpa americana

The biggest thrill for me during my Runge visit was seeing an actual planting of Callicarpa americana (American Beauty Berry). Although a Missouri native, Callicarpa prefers a warm climate, and central Missouri (Zone 5b) is pretty much the northern limit of its range. At this time of year, the leaves are beginning to change from medium green to their yellow fall color, but the berries are at their most intense deep violet and are so profuse that they weight down the branches into an arching  vase shape. If you look carefully at the photo, you’ll notice that Callicarpa has long, opposite leaves, ovate to elliptical in shape, with pointed ends and toothed margins. The whole effect is somewhat oriental and definitely eye-catching.

Callicarpa hedge in shade near Runge visitor center

Beauty Berry typically grows 3′-5′ high and as wide. Although the plant produces its best fruit in full sun, it can also be grown in partial shade. It prefers a moist clay soil or a sandy soil amended with organic matter. Fortunately, the berries are produced on new wood, because Beauty Berry may not be entirely hardy in Zone 5. It is often treated as a perennial in its northern range, with plants cut back to about 6″ in the fall. Although the leaves of the plant are attractive to deer and rabbits, they also contain a mosquito repellant as effective as deet. The berries, which are reported to have an astringent taste, are a food source for songbirds and northern bobwhite quail.

In addition to Callicarpa americana, another variety of Beauty Berry is Callicarpa dichotoma, a somewhat smaller version of the American Beauty Berry at 2′-4′ high. The fruit production of the species dichotoma is  somewhat less than americana. Several interesting dichotoma cultivars are available, including ‘Early Amethyst’ (4′-5′ tall, 6′-8′ wide, fruits earlier than the species), ‘Issai’ (2′-4′ high, 4′-5′ wide, produces earlier and more abundant fruit than the species), and ‘Duet’, a new introduction from the National Arboretum that has lovely variegated foliage and white fruit.

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4 Responses to Runge Conservation Center, Part One

  1. Sima says:

    Hi Grayslady. I surfed on over from Sky Dancing and I’m enjoying reading your blog!

    I love the callicarpa. I swear I’ve seen this growing up here in Western WA, but it doesn’t seem like it would be the right climate for it. Too cool and wet. So now I’ve got to find out what I saw growing and if it’s a relative or not. I remember the bunches of berries…

    • grayslady says:

      Hi Sima. It’s unlikely you would see a callicarpa in WA, but here are two possibilities for what you might have seen: Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon Grape Holly) or Viburnum nudum (Possumhaw Viburnum). Both plants have colorful clusters of berries and both plants have opposite leaves.

      • Sima says:

        It’s probably the Mahonia I saw. It was out in the wilds, near my Dad’s. I remember the neat looking clusters of berries!

        • grayslady says:

          Mahonia is a beautiful, tough plant. It is one of the few broad-leaved evergreens that will grow well in colder climates and in alkaline soil. The only thing it doesn’t like is wet feet (same as yews).

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