Missouri Botanical Garden celebrates its 150th birthday

Sunday, June 14, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 4:14 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 20, 2009

ST. LOUIS — Young Henry Shaw, only 18, was selling cutlery out of a rented room in St. Louis when a chance, half-day journey out of town on horseback one spring day in 1819 led him to his destiny — the prairie that would become his garden.

"Uncultivated," the Englishman recorded, "without trees or fences, but covered with tall luxuriant grass, undulated by the gentle breeze of spring."

Forty years later, in 1859, the wealthy businessman-turned-philanthropist opened a botanical garden on the land he so loved for his adopted city's residents.

The treasure Shaw established "for all time for public good" on June 15, 1859, would become the Missouri Botanical Garden, an urban oasis of splendor and beauty, and one of the nation's oldest botanical gardens in continuous operation.

Longtime St. Louisans still affectionately refer to it as Shaw's Garden, for the British businessman who made his fortune in hardware here, retired at age 40 to travel the world and found inspiration in the great gardens of Europe.

A National Historic Landmark, the Missouri Botanical Garden is widely considered one of the top three botanical gardens in the world, a center for science and conservation, education and horticultural display.

"There's no place like it, over and above the Kew Gardens," said Martin Gordon, a retired professor of medicine at Yale University. He recently visited for a film he's doing on plants' medicinal value.

"It's such a warm and friendly place, an invaluable institution, suitable for all ages — and addicting," Gordon said.

The Missouri Botanical Garden is celebrating its 150th birthday with activities and events throughout the year, from lectures by renowned botanical experts to a 20-foot-diameter floral clock, showcasing seasonal flowers of varying colors and textures. Shaw's handwritten journals of his first European travels in the 1850s are being made public for the first time on the Garden's Web site.

Marking the occasion are special displays including heirloom vegetables from the 19th century and orchids and holiday flowers. The Garden is also exhibiting photographs that document the plants it is working to conserve in 36 countries around the world.

Other birthday activities include a Midsummer Night's Dance June 27, a (native St. Louisan) Chuck Berry concert July 24 and free evening concerts on Wednesdays through Aug. 5. There also will be Garden Party Nights featuring wine and microbrewery-tastings Thursdays through Sept. 3.

But all the fun should not distract from the Garden's mission "to discover and share knowledge about plants and their environment, in order to preserve and enrich life."

The Garden offers 79 acres of display gardens, fountains, sculptures, indoor conservatories and historic buildings, including Shaw's country home, Tower Grove House, and final place of rest.

Its horticultural displays include a tropical rain forest inside the Climatron conservatory and one of the largest Japanese strolling gardens in North America.

The William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening has 23 residential-scale demonstration gardens.

Behind the showpiece, the Missouri Botanical Garden's "unseen garden" is its botanical exploration, plant science and conservation.

Garden botanists train and help others around the globe conserve and manage their resources. The Garden has developed the world's largest and most widely used botanical database, Tropicos, and maintains an herbarium of 6 million plant specimens.

Later this month, the Garden will host the American Public Gardens Association annual conference. The gathering of public garden professionals from North America will celebrate "The Global Garden" to honor 250 years of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; 150 years of the Singapore Botanic Gardens; and 150 years of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Director Peter Raven, the botanist and environmentalist who has led the Garden since 1970, has overseen its rise in stature from a relatively small institution to a world leader, said Stephen Hopper, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. "What Peter has achieved, globally, is unique," he said.

Raven said he plans to retire in mid-2011, and a search for his successor is under way. The two will overlap a bit.

"It's inspiring to me," said Mona Diefenbach of Anna, Ill., who was recently touring the garden with her husband, Richard. Now 66, she's made regular visits to the garden since accompanying her Ukrainian immigrant grandparents as a girl.

"When we came to visit, they always made sure we went to the botanical gardens," she said.

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