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The Missouri Botanical Garden - Shaw's Garden, a historic St. Louis attraction, features plants from around the world in a unique setting
By Conor Watkins

The Missouri Botanical Garden
-Shaw's Garden, a historic St. Louis attraction,
features exotic plants from around the world
in a unique setting


Due to its unique design and large size, the Climatron has become
somewhat symbolic of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The Missouri Botanical Garden, also known as Shaw’s Garden, offers a unique opportunity to view plants from all over the world in a unique setting.  The garden is located in the heart of St. Louis city yet it remains isolated from the surrounding hustle and bustle.  Like many zoo’s education and research are promoted and the plants are arranged in specific sections by climate and their country/region of origin.  While many plants grow outside, some needing a more controlled climate are held in specific greenhouses.

The Missouri Botanical Garden was started back in 1857 by Henry Shaw, an English immigrant and entrepreneur.  Henry was born on July 24, 1800 in Sheffield, England, a town known for its coal and metalworking industries.  He showed an interest in flowers and gardens at a very young age.  Henry’s father and a partner started an ironware manufacturing business that thrived for a time.  When the business started losing money, Henry returned to help his father.  Soon, the two decided to journey to the New World to seek new opportunities.

The two shipped some hardware, tools, and cutlery from England and decided to settle in Quebec, Canada.  A shipment of goods was lost in the process and the Henry’s father sent him to New Orleans to track it down and learn about growing cotton.  Henry found the shipment, but the market for such goods in New Orleans was saturated and He didn’t like the climate.  He brought his goods inland to the frontier settlement of St. Louis via steamboat.

When he arrived in St. Louis, the town was only about 50 years old and remained much as it was when founded by Pierre Laclede.  It stretched for a mile along the river but was only three blocks deep.  Henry’s business thrived as he sold hardware, tools, and cutlery to residents of the city, farmers, soldiers, and those heading west.  He was soon importing a wide variety of goods from England.  In 1839, Henry Shaw made an enormous profit of $25,000 and decided to sell his business at the first good opportunity.

At the age of 40, Shaw sold his business for $250,000 and retired.  He still had many years to live and traveled to Europe multiple times in the next ten years.  His travels were part of his keeping with the tradition of being an English gentleman, which meant that he should be exposed to the various arts and cultures of Europe.  While he was away, his sister took care of his finances and properties in St. Louis.  He began to buy land in downtown and south St. Louis with his fortunes.  Henry’s town house was built on the corner of Seventh and Locust streets in St. Louis and his country house at his estate was built in 1849.  It soon became known as the Tower Grove House because of its tower and nearby grove of trees.  To this day, the surrounding neighborhood and nearby city park are known as Tower Grove.  Henry traveled abroad for the last time in 1851 in order to visit the first World’s Fair (also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition) in London.

While Henry was in England, he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and gardens at Chatsworth, home of the Duke of Devonshire.  This planted the idea in his head that he could create his own garden when he returned home, as Henry had both the land and money needed for such a project.  He began to consult authorities on botanical gardens around the world and started his own gardens in 1857.  He sketched out plans and started planting thousands of trees and other plants on his 80-acre country estate in south St. Louis.  He also started a library and herbarium (collection of dried plant specimens) in the same year.  Some of his herbarium collection was even imported from Germany.

Henry wanted the garden to be used for display, research, and education, a philosophy that the garden has continued.  Such a scope of purpose differentiates an ordinary garden from a botanical garden.  A botanical garden is essentially identical to a zoo, except that it deals with plants instead of animals.  In 1859, Henry opened the garden to the public six days a week and two Sundays per year.

The future of the garden and its funding was threatened in 1859 when Effie Carstang brought a lawsuit against Shaw for breach of promise.  She claimed that Shaw promised to marry her but then backed out.  Carstang originally won a $100,000 settlement but this was reversed after an appeal.  If the decision had not been reversed, plans for the garden might have been curtailed due to lack of funding.

Shaw never married, as he considered the garden to be his life.  Throughout the rest of his life, Shaw was known as generous man to the community.  He donated the land now containing Tower Grove Park to the City of St. Louis and sponsored programs and art within the park.  He later started a botany school at Washington University.  Before he died, Shaw established a charitable trust to guarantee that the garden would continue long after his death.  He was worried about willing the garden to an individual or government agency, as they might alter the purpose or sell the garden outright to save or make money.

Before his death, Shaw had a mausoleum built on the garden property.  When he died in 1889, Shaw was entombed inside a horizontal statue of himself near the Tower Grove House.  He has continued to rest here to this day.  Shaw’s will dictated that his town house near downtown be moved to the garden property.  The house was carefully disassembled brick by brick and moved.  After the move, the town house contained administration and research facilities.

The original Tower Grove house was designed for Shaw, who was single.  When the new director and his family moved in, the house was enlarged to nearly twice its original size.  Relatively few modifications were made to the house after this addition.  In the late 1890’s, a plan for an extensive expansion was submitted and approved.  This expansion included the creation of a pond and the establishment of a North American section in the garden but also included a large westward expansion.  In the end, the pond and North American section were created but the westward expansion never occurred.  The large pond now serves as a portion of the Japanese Garden.

During the 1920’s and 30’s, pollution from coal soot threatened many of the gardens’ collections.  Such pollution was common during the industrial revolution and the Royal Botanic Gardens near London had to move collections farther from its home city.  The garden monitored air quality and tried to fight the pollution via filtering and political encouragement.  A portion of the land in the city was sold to raise money to purchase land far from the pollution of the city.  Many of the collections were to be moved to the new location.  A location was picked near Gray Summit, MO and was soon known as Shaw’s Arboretum.  The sensitive orchids were moved to the new location first and the pollution soon cleared, canceling plans to move other collections.  In 2000, Shaw’s Arboretum was renamed to the Shaw Nature Reserve.  This area now consists of 2,500 acres.  See http://www.mobot.org/MOBOT/arboretum for more information on the area.

Around the same time, the garden began collecting specimens from various parts of the world and well known naturalists such a John Muir were consulted.  The garden has continued to collect and try to conserve plant species worldwide and has since grown to become a respected botanical garden around the world.  The gardens are also listed on the national register of historic places.


One of the many arbors at the Missouri Botanical Garden holds a unique collection
of plants.  The Missouri Botanical Garden includes an assortment of species from
around the world.

Throughout its 140 plus year history, the Missouri Botanical Garden has kept with Shaw’s tradition of allowing the public to visit the facility.  All visitors enter the gardens through the Ridgeway Center.  This building contains the Garden Gate Café, a small restaurant, and the Garden Gate Shop, a gift shop.  An art gallery known as the Spink Gallery holds a collection of ceramics.  After viewing attractions in the Ridgeway Center, one can enter the gardens through the back of the building.

One will find a variety of indoor and outdoor gardens once through the Ridgeway Center.  The gardens feature plants from around the world along with various sculptures and fountains to enhance the experience.  Gardens are arranged both by plant species and their native regions.  Specific plant collections by species include but are not limited to conifers, roses, iris, lily, hostas, and magnolias.  The international gardens are described later.


This giant ant is one of many sculptures scattered around the
Missouri Botanical Garden.

The garden contains three main conservatory greenhouses.  The closest building to the Ridgeway Center is the Linnean House.  This greenhouse with brick arches and a mostly glass roof is the oldest continuously operating greenhouse west of the Mississippi River.  It was built in 1882 by Henry Shaw and is named after Carl Linnaeus, the botanist who invented the current scientific naming system for plant and animal species.  Shaw had busts of Linnaeus other influential botanists placed inside the house around the time it opened.  This house is home to a variety of plants but is best known for its collection of Camellias, a flowering tree.  Camellias are native to Southeast Asia and the leaves of certain species are used to make tea.  These trees bloom in the winter from December to mid April, with their peak being in February.

Perhaps the most prominent greenhouse at the Missouri Botanical Garden is Climatron.  This structure was built in 1960 to house tropical plants in a natural looking environment.  Prior to being housed in the Climatron, tropical plants were housed in the Palm House, a 1913 structure that was crumbling and in need of replacement.  The Climatron is a climate controlled greenhouse built inside of a geodesic dome, making it the first structure of its type to be used for a greenhouse.  The design requires no structural columns or supports inside the dome, allowing for over one half acre of uninterrupted space.  Due to its unique design and aluminum frame, it won the 1961 Reynolds Award for architectural excellence in aluminum.  The structure was also named as one of the top architectural achievements in the country in 1976.  In 1988, the original aluminum frame had become warped and the Plexiglas windows were worn out.  The Climatron closed for a 22 month renovation that included the construction of a new dome within the existing structure.  This dome used glass instead of Plexiglas, as it is more durable.  Once complete, the original structure was left with its windows removed due to its historic value.  Due to its unique design and large size, the structure has become somewhat symbolic of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The Climatron houses approximately 1200 species of tropical plants, with some being highly endangered.  A variety of birds and other animals native to the rainforest are also present in the greenhouse.  A native hut, waterfalls, tropical aquarium, and agricultural displays are among the sights seen in the Climatron.  Several species of Cycads, a primitive plant common during the Jurassic Period (206-144 million years ago) are displayed.  These very plants were displayed in the 1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair and are thought to be over 200 years old.  The Brookings Interpretive Center Annex to the Climatron houses colorful poison dart frogs and other displays on tropical regions.

The Schoenberg Temperate House, built in 1990 to replace the aging Mediterranean House, is another glass structure located just north of the Climatron.  It features vegetation from temperate, Mediterranean climates around the world.  Mediterranean climates experience warm, sunny, and dry summers while being cool and rainy in the winter.  Plants from Africa, Australia, Korea, China, Japan, South America, the California coast, and the Mediterranean Sea region are displayed in seven gardens.  The Schoenberg House includes pomegranates, figs, grapes, laurel, cork, olive, various spices, and many others.  Plants in the greenhouse begin blooming in late winter, peak during April, and continue to bloom during the summer.

The stone portico (archway) present inside the greenhouse was once the main entrance to St. Leo’s School in south St. Louis.  It was saved when the school was razed in 1978.  A Moorish garden built to resemble the 11th century Alahambra garden in Granada, Spain.  It features a tiled floor and fountain.

Those looking for the Desert House will be disappointed.  This greenhouse was demolished in 1994 due to its deteriorating and unsafe condition.  The plants are stored elsewhere at the garden but will not be on display until enough donations are given towards a new greenhouse.  The design of the new Desert House will closely resemble that of the Temperate House.  Many of these plants are located at the offsite Monsanto Center.  This building uses environmentally friendly architecture and rests on a base isolation system to make the structure earthquake resistant.

The Kemper Center for home gardening is an indoor and outdoor display of gardening ideas for the home gardener.  It features a building with a library, demonstration rooms, and 8 acres of gardens arranged in a residential style.  This area is northwest of the Climatron.

One of the most popular international gardens has to be the Japanese Garden. The garden keeps with the Japanese tradition of using nature as art.  This garden features a large pond inhabited by the fish koi, a Japanese species of carp.  Although koi appear to be a giant goldfish, the two species are not identical.  They are both in the carp family.  One can buy fish food from machines nearby to feed those fish.  Many of the fish are nearly two feet long and start a feeding frenzy as soon as food is thrown in the water.  Kids and adults alike always seem to enjoy the koi and their feeding frenzies.

The Grigg Nanjing Chinese Friendship Garden, built to honor the sister city relationship between St. Louis and Nanjing, China, is also included in the international collection.  It was designed by a Chinese born architect and is considered to be the most authentic Chinese garden of its size in the U.S.  European style gardens are also included.  The Strassenfest Garden contains plants native to central Europe and Germany, as well as those hybridized by the Germans.  The Cherbonnier English Woodland Garden simulates a mature forest environment by having three main layers of vegetation.  These layers include an upper layer of trees, a middle layer of shrubs, along with a low layer of small plants and groundcovers.

The Victorian area is located near Shaw’s Tower Grove House.  This area features a hedge maze, herb garden, observatory, English style garden, and Henry Shaw’s mausoleum garden.  It is here that Shaw rests in his copper roofed, granite sided mausoleum.  Tours of the Tower Grove House are available for a small fee.


The author stands at the top of the observatory in the Victorian Area.
The hedgerow maze is visible in the background.

The garden contains other gardens and structures too numerous to be named here.  In order to fully experience the Missouri Botanical Garden, one must visit the location.  The garden is open year round but is probably most enjoyable in the spring.  A fee of $7 for adults and $5 for seniors (65 and older) is required to enter the grounds.  Children under 13 are admitted free of charge.  Residents of St. Louis County are charged only $3 for adults and $1.50 for seniors.  Senior admission is free on Wednesdays and Saturdays between 7:00 a.m. and noon.  Garden memberships serve to support the garden and its programs, are also available.  Individuals and families joining the garden receive free admission to the garden, free publications, discounts at the gift shop and restaurant, notice of plant sales, special opportunities to visit other gardens around the country, along with other benefits.

The garden is open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. everyday but Christmas.  The grounds are open until 8:00 p.m. Labor Day through Memorial Day and open early at 7:00 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays year round.  To get to the garden from Rolla take I-44 east to the Vandeventer Exit (exit 287) and turn right.  Turn left onto Shaw Blvd. at the next stoplight and follow 1.5 blocks to the garden entrance at 4344 Shaw Blvd.

The garden also owns the offsite Gateway Center (http://www.mobot.org/gatewaycenter/), a location promoting resource efficiency, the Sachs Butterfly House (http://www.butterflyhouse.org/), and the Shaw Nature Reserve.  For more information on the garden, visit http://www.mobot.org/ or call the information lines at 314-577-9400 and toll free 1-800-642-8842.

(C) 2006 by Conor Watkins