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The prairie that became a beloved garden

Henry Shaw's quest to tame 'uncultivated' land and transform it into the Missouri Botanical Garden is celebrated 150 years later.

By Cheryl WittenauerFor the Associated Press / June 24, 2009

Glass sculptures resembling Walla Walla onions float in a pond at the Missouri Botanical Garden. The garden, cultivated by philanthropist Henry Shaw in 1859, is regarded as one of the top three botanical gardens in the world.




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."

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Forty years later, in 1859, the wealthy former businessman-turned-philanthropist opened on the land he so loved a botanical garden 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 Dr. 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."

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 (6.1-meter-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's Night Dance June 27, a (native St. Louisan) Chuck Berry concert July 24, free evening concerts on Wednesdays through Aug. 5, and Garden Party Nights featuring wine and microbrewery-tastings Thursdays through Sept. 3.