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.
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.
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.
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.