"Botanical gardens and their dedication to scientific purposes
and the economic uses to which they are destined to be applied may be regarded
as the most important institutions of civilized society."

--Henry Shaw

"In Shaw's Garden" a black and white illustration that appeared in Commercial and Architectural in St. Louis published in 1888.

The greenZoo where I walk

I walk in the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri. People have been walking here since 1859.
The Missouri Botanical Garden was the idea of entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Shaw. Shaw came to St. Louis from Sheffield, England in 1819 when he was 19. He saw opportunities in St. Louis to supply the hardware, hand tools, and dry goods needed by the adventurers, settlers, traders, and soldiers who stopped in the city before setting out for the frontier. By the time Shaw was 40, he had made and invested his fortune. He then decided travel. Shaw made extended grand tours of Europe throughout the 1840's. In 1851 he took a shorter trip to London to see the Great Exhibition and to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. On his way to London, Shaw visited the Duke of Devonshire's magnificent gardens at Chatsworth. There he saw a water display splashing down a two-hundred yard staircase built into a hillside, a fountain that sprayed water higher than any in Europe, and the elegant garden conservatory designed by Joseph Paxton and used by him as the model for the stunning Crystal Palace that Shaw would soon see at the Great Exhibition. It was a during these walks at Chatsworth that Shaw decided that he too should have a garden.

Unlike the gardens on the grounds of private estates of the well-to-do, Shaw wanted his garden to be open to all. To help plan his garden, Shaw sought advice from Sir William Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew outside London. It was Sir William who urged Shaw to create a garden that combined "beauty and science." So with the help of George Engelmann, a St. Louis physician and botanist, and Harvard botanist Asa Gray, Henry Shaw built his garden. On June 15, 1859, his Missouri Botanical Garden opened its gates to the public. Shaw lived, died, and is now buried on the grounds of the garden he willed to us all.

Today the Missouri Botanical Garden is known internationally for its research programs that reach far beyond St. Louis and for its work in promoting conservation. But to people around here, the garden that Henry Shaw built on a prairie west of town still is called "Shaw's Garden."

The Garden's jug-shaped 79 acres are enclosed on three sides by a thick, high stone wall Shaw had built to protect to the garden from wind and plant-munching wildlife. Meandering paths tie the Garden together linking the conservatories, buildings, water displays, and sculpture.

I walk the Garden just after it opens at 7:00 a.m. on Saturdays. Saturday walks are a legacy of the time when daylight hours during the week were blocked by a weekday job. Now, although I can walk on different days at odd hours, I still prefer mornings on a day when the keepers with their power equipment are at home. My walks usually begin by picking up the latest copy of "Plants in Bloom" at the Garden's reception desk and they end at the Garden Café where I write my notes while drinking some of the best coffee in town and eating too many slices of Pat's homemade banana bread.

My leisurely walks usually circle the grounds clockwise. I walk outdoors, except for visits to the temperate house, if it's open when I get there. In the past ten years, I have been inside the glass Climatron (what an ugly word!) only to show off the city's sites to out-of-town friends and relatives. Even though I know that the tropical displays and exhibits in the Climatron are at the heart of the Garden's mission to promote sustainable development and preserve biodiversity throughout the world, I prefer to watch the progress plants that grow outdoors. My feelings about the Climatron are a lot like my wife's attitude toward olives: I like them, but I never eat them.

More about Henry Shaw and the Missouri Botanical Garden

My favorite book about Shaw is Henry Shaw: His Life and Legacies written in 1987 by William Barnaby Faherty, S.J. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press). Father Faherty, professor emeritus of history at Saint Louis University, has his way with the past making the people he describes seem as vital and energetic as he is himself. On video, a new documentary called Henry Shaw: The Good Neighbor by Saint Louis University English professor Jim Scott, focuses on Shaw's enduring legacy to the city.

My hands-down favorite book about the garden itself is A World of Plants: The Missouri Botanical Garden (New York: Harry Abrams), written by Charlene Bry, Marshall R. Crosby and Peter Loewer with ravishing photographs by Kiku Obata. The book was published in 1989 so it doesn't include recent additions to Garden. For those, get a guidebook. For everything else, A World of Plants is still the best.