Seventy-nine acres of serenity in St. Louis

Some men look to the stars for vision; Henry Shaw looked to the sod.

The young Shaw arrived in St. Louis from his native England as a lad of 18 in 1819. On quiet days, he would spend hours wandering through a windswept, treeless tract of land just outside the city. His only companions were his dreams.

Fast forward 40 years: After amassing a fortune selling goods to settlers as they trekked west, Shaw bought that desolated land and spent the rest of his days developing it into what is now the Missouri Botanical Garden.

I visited there recently with Mary Hendron, director of public relations for the St. Louis Convention & Visitor Commission. Ms. Hendron couldn't hold back her enthusiasm as she wheeled her car into the garden's parking lot. Leaning toward me, she said in a stage whisper, "We're not supposed to have a favorite place [in St. Louis], but this is mine."

Ms. Hendron's favorite place is hardly her little secret. Some 750,000 visitors stroll through these 79 acres of manicured grounds each year.

They walk beneath the shade of more than 4,000 trees and along the dappled sunny paths of a vast variety of horticultural delights.

Just beyond the entrance, and past the Gladney Rose Garden, a long, narrow reflecting pool stretches toward the round Climatron like some giant exclamation point.

The dark pool is dotted with waterlilies in vibrant pinks, violets, yellows, whites, and blues that, with a little imagination, resemble giant cups of Chinese porcelain set on a black lacquered table.

Tall columns rising above the water are topped with dancing, winged musician figures from the studio of the great Swedish sculptor Carl Milles.

Not far away at the end of the pool, the Climatron, a large, ethereal-looking geodesic dome, which resembles a giant dandelion clock, beckons.

Inside, the humidity matches the air of a steamy St. Louis summer.

But there the similarity ends.

Here one enters the dense, tropical world of a rain forest. Towering palm trees, giant ferns, and exotic orchids press bark to branch to reach for the sun. Damp paths lead through trails of velvety mosses and an endless tangle of jungle greenery, bridges, pools, and waterfalls.

Bright yellow birds whistle as they fly deftly between the maze of growth that is their home.

The dome, clearly inspired by Buckminster Fuller, has been named one of the 100 most significant architectural achievements in US history.

Back outside, a path leads past a Lipchitz statue, "Birth of the Muses." Nearby, the Tower Grove House, Shaw's summer residence, is the centerpiece of several Victorian-era gardens. The house, furnished with period pieces, may be visited for a small fee.

Of particular interest is an herb garden on one side of the house and a parterre overlooked by Carlo Nicoli's statue of Juno, the Roman goddess of women and childbirth, a gift from Mr. Shaw, the perennial bachelor. A number of gold Victorian gazing balls - which have suddenly become popular again - mirror the formal plantings.

In understated contrast to all this fussiness is the English Woodland Garden, a quiet refuge of trees, shrubs, and ground covers that leads to a formal garden of trimmed boxwood. From the gazebo in the Boxwood Garden, you can - if you use your imagination - make out the initials of Henry Shaw spelled out in trimmed hedges.

If this garden has a centerpiece, it may well be the Japanese Garden - Seiwa-en. This "garden of pure, clear harmony and peace" is 14 acres of serene beauty encompassing a four-acre lake and a series of small islands.

Here I meet Scott McCracken, one of the gardeners. He is carefully trimming the pines and assorted conifers, snipping a bud here, a branch there, stepping back with each cut to examine his work.

"I like working in this part of the garden," he says, stopping for a moment to chat. "Japanese gardens are less fussy, more contained. More a part of nature, in patterns of shapes and forms."

Mr. McCracken stops to carefully rake the field of white stones around the rocks into the swirling patterns he had inadvertently disturbed while he worked.

Just a few yards down the path is a shallow area on the water's edge that holds a stand of lotus. The pale leaves atop six-foot stems look like green parasols left unexpectedly by a thousand fleeing geishas.

A group of animated schoolchildren lean over the rail of a bridge, dropping pellets of fish food to a large, ravenous school of giant koi.

The fish, with brilliant scales of orange, red, blue, silver, and gray, resemble a moving mosaic as they all but crawl on top of each other, their gaping mouths opening and closing as if saying, "More, more, more."

Farther around the lake, the tranquility is restored as visitors walk across a graceful drum bridge that spans the water to Teahouse Island. The island is open during the annual Japanese Festival held over Labor Day weekend.

As the days shorten, and autumn moves toward winter, the frost has begun to paint the maples in a warm red that glows through the morning mist as it rises from the water.

Nearby is the Grigg Nanjing Friendship Garden.

Smaller in size and more ornate in design than its Japanese neighbor, it is a masterpiece of Chinese-style horticulture. It is crowned by a lovely pagoda, which is reached by mosaic paths and a carved bridge over a goldfish pool.

There is so much more to see and learn on these sprawling acres, including a series of educational facilities devoted to the study and preservation of all the world's flora.

The Missouri Botanical Garden is open daily except Christmas. There is no best time to visit here; each passing week brings previously unseen wonders to light.

Many people expect that a beautiful garden should be a quiet place of solitude, reflection, and peace - a kind of organic church, if you will - a place where visitors can turn from the troubled world and seek spiritual resolve.

Thanks to Shaw's remarkable vision and generosity, it is perhaps more appropriate to think of the Missouri Botanical Garden as a cathedral.

For more information, see the garden's website, www.mobot.org, or call 800- 642-8842.

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