Interesting Places to Visit
Missouri Botanical Garden (St. Louis, Missouri)
By Phil Dotree — June 15, 2011
Most states have some sort of official botanical garden, usually packed with local plants and located somewhere near a city zoo. These botanical gardens can be wonderful, but many are treated as a curiosity or afterthought. The Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis is different. It’s a massive park with thousands of types of plants, expertly arranged and maintained throughout the year. It’s also one of the oldest botanical institutions in the United States, a place for cutting-edge research, and a dazzling, breathtaking attraction for St. Louis residents and tourists.
A view of the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden. It's 70 feet high in the center, 175 feet in diameter at the base, enclosing about 24,000 square feet (more than a half an acre) of a tropical environment. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The History of the Missouri Botanical Garden
The legacy of the Missouri Botanical Garden is part of the reason for its success as a tourist attraction and a landmark. It was opened in 1859 with funding from businessman and philanthropist Henry Shaw. Shaw eventually lived in the legendary Tower Grove House which still stands in the garden today.
The entrance to the Missouri Botanical Gardens. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Shaw had a passion for botany. More importantly, he had the money and the generosity to make a large public garden feasible in late 19th century St. Louis. He hired teams of top botanists to expand and care for the garden. Shaw also spent much of his retirement enjoying his 79-acre achievement, and when he died, he was interred in a mausoleum near Tower Grove House. The mausoleum still stands today and receives thousands of visitors each year.
Since Shaw’s death, the Missouri Botanical Garden has been known to some as Shaw’s Garden, and numerous improvements over the next century and a half have made it one of the most spectacular botanical achievements in the world. Numerous gardens and greenhouses showcase plants from all over the world, from the pitcher plants and banana trees of the rain forest to breathtaking roses, tulips and orchids.
The Missouri Botanical Gardens gift shop. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Entering The Missouri Botanical Garden
The Missouri Botanical Garden is near Tower Grove Park, a public park also donated by Henry Shaw in the 19th century. Visitors enter through a large educational center with a gift shop (which includes seeds and gardening supplies) and several displays that give a history of the Garden as well as lists of some of the most exciting current attractions.
Guests exit the welcome center to a breathtaking sight: there’s a large fountain surrounded by season-appropriate flowers, along with multiple floral gardens. There’s also a small restaurant and several tables, perfect for grabbing a bite while giving the eyes time to adjust to the bright light and brilliant color of the scene.
A fountain marks the entranceway/exit of the Garden. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
There are maps all around these floral gardens and throughout the park, and for good reason: it’s a very, very big place. It would take several visits to see every garden in the park, and as flowers are constantly blooming and dying, it’s impossible to have the exact same experience on any two visits.
However, there are a few popular attractions that deserve visitors’ attention on every trip.
The lake at Seiwa-En Japanese walking garden. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The Japanese garden Seiwa-en is the largest garden of its kind in North America and a famous addition to Shaw’s Garden. It’s composed of 14 acres including a 4.5 acre lake, grown and kept according to the traditional rules of 19th century Edo period Japanese gardens.
When walking along the marked path that winds through Seiwa-en, attention to detail is incredibly important.
This family water sculpture was donated to the Garden and is filled with water-friendly plants. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The Japanese concept of meigakure plays a big part in Seiwa-en’s design. According to this concept, plants are hidden from plain view along the garden’s path. Quickly walking through Seiwa-en would be a mistake, as mindfulness and attention are greatly rewarded.
Seiwa-en contains several bridges, where visitors often stop to feed the enormous colorful catfish swimming in the lake. Many plants sit in white sand lined by smooth rocks, with carefully drawn lines adding an artistic touch to the presentation. There’s even a traditional Japanese teahouse, although this is usually closed to the public. Seiwa-en is beautiful because of its simplicity, but complex in its artistry.
In 2006, the Garden presented “Glass in the Garden,” an exhibition of blown glass sculptures by renowned artist Dale Chihuly. Here we see a Chihuly sculpture set decorating an arched entrance to a flower garden. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
While many visitors will undoubtedly be drawn to Seiwa-en or other outdoor floral attractions, the Climatron is the most noticeable structure in the Missouri Botanical Gardens and unquestionably one of the most interesting.
The Climatron is a large geodesic dome that houses more than 400 plant species. It’s built with a complex climate system to allow different types of rain forest and jungle plants to grow alongside one another. There are South American and African jungle plants hanging down from rocks and growing up from rich soil, with small placards explaining the different types of climate and plant life along the winding paths that lead through the dome. It feels like being in the rain forest, complete with a muggy humidity, several small waterfalls and the occasional chirping bird.
An artificial waterfall inside the Climatron. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
It’s worth noting that the Climatron is the first geodesic dome greenhouse in the world and an architectural marvel--especially when considering that it was constructed in 1960. It still feels state-of-the-art and it makes a visit to the Missouri Botanical Garden truly worthwhile, even in the middle of the winter.
Tower Grove House
The Tower Grove House that Henry Shaw built and lived in still stands, overlooking his own personal garden. It may be one of the most traditional gardens in the park, but that doesn’t diminish its beauty. Guests can enter the Tower Grove House throughout the year and view much of the garden and the nearby Tower Grove Park from its upper level. The house has been preserved fairly well, so it’s an interesting attraction for anyone interested in the history of Missouri Botanical Garden or in 19th-century life.
Tower Grove House at the Missour Museum. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Something For Everyone
There are herb gardens, Midwestern gardens, an Ottoman garden (complete with a throne) and even a few playgrounds. A biblical garden features plants mentioned in the Bible. The Linnean Greenhouse showcases camellias, a family of flowering plants that bloom in various bright colors throughout the year. Several gardening centers are even set up to provide tips for amateur botanists.
Young children who might not appreciate the finer qualities of an azalea will love the Children’s Garden, which features such activities as face-painting, planting and button making. Throughout the year, there are several cultural festivals which feature food and entertainment (along with featured exotic plants, of course).
A life-size bronze by acclaimed African-American sculptor Tina Allen of California is the focal point of the new George Washington Carver Garden. The six-foot statue shows a 65-year old Carver, wearing a lab jacket and a wise, gentle expression as he holds an amaryllis flower to the sunlight. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
It’s hard to think of a type of plant life that isn’t somewhere in the sprawling Missouri Botanical Garden or a type of visitor who won’t find something to enjoy. Even teenagers with a kneejerk “plants are boring” attitude will have to begrudgingly admit that yes, plants can be pretty cool with the right presentation.
This gazebo is carefully framed with immaculate landscaping. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
On our visit, we noticed employees preparing for a weekend tree-climbing event, where guests could climb one of several large trees with safety harnesses. Other employees were building massive wood structures for a future playground, and several greenhouses were being re-enforced and re-planted. Rings of tulips were about to bloom and the Grigg Nanjing Friendship Chinese Garden was receiving attention from half a dozen or so of the park’s staff.
Another section of the Climatron showcases local Midwestern plants and flowers. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
There were as many new additions being planned and built as there were distinct sections of the Garden to view; like the plants it houses, the Missouri Botanical Garden is a living, growing organism.
An Unfinished Beauty
It should go without saying that there are almost too many separate, distinct attractions within the walls of the Missouri Botanical Gardens to name. It’s difficult to say exactly what you’ll see during a visit, partially because of the constant stream of new additions to the park and partially because of the nature of plant life itself.
More flowers near the entrance of the Missouri Botanical Garden. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
One visit might yield a stunning view of a broad ring of blooming orchids. The next week, that same ring of orchids could be withered and dying while nearby tulips have expanded and blossomed. The Missouri Botanical Gardens certainly can’t be called static.
It’s easy to see why season passes to the park are so popular, especially among residents of the nearby Tower Grove neighborhood. A walk through the gardens is always sure to provide a sense of renewal, growth and a deep connection with nature.
The many statues in the Garden provide an artistic touch. In the pool one can see more of artist Dale Chihuly’s "Walla Wallas," a blown glass sculpture set of onion-shaped glass that floats in the central axis reflecting pool during warm weather months. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Depending on your perspective, plant life might be a source of simple pleasure, a form of art or a branch of science (no pun intended). To the individuals who work at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, it’s all three.
Maybe that’s why it’s open 364 days a year (closed on Christmas) and why the staff seems to work so hard year-round. There’s a passion in the Missouri Botanical Garden which creates a thrilling experience for everyone willing to take the time for a visit.
These graceful, amber-colored sculptures in the Climatron draw attention to a moss-covered pond. Called Sunset Herons, they are yet another example of the glass-blown work of artist Dale Chihuly, whose work can be found in several locations around the Missouri Botanical garden. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The Missouri Botanical Garden is open from 9 AM to 5 PM daily. It costs $4 for adult St. Louis City and County residents, $3 for Senior residents and $8 for all non-residents. Admission is free for children under the age of 13. Various types of Garden membership are also available, which functions as a season pass and starts at $65. Free parking is available near the Garden’s entrance.
For more information, visit http://www.mobot.org.
Phil Dotree, a St. Louis native, has written over 2,000 articles on various subjects for many websites and news sites (Yahoo!, Digg.com, Fark, TheFrisky.com, ManOfTheHouse.com) and many companies including Gillette and Proctor and Gamble. These pieces have included opinion articles, website content, press releases, SEO, and much more. He has been featured on the Howard Stern show and CNN.com. John studied English at Southern Illinois University and currently works exclusively as a freelance writer and musician in St. Louis, Missouri.