Late August isn’t the best time to visit most gardens, but that was when I had the opportunity to visit the Missouri Botanical Gardens. I’ve used their horticultural database for years. It’s one of the most extensive online resources available to those of us who want to learn more about plants. Home gardeners in particular should check out the Plant Finder, which offers helpful information on plants you might grow in your yard (just remember, Missouri isn’t Colorado!). Now I had a chance to see the gardens in person. I could hardly wait!
Even though many flowers were past their prime this late in the season, there was still plenty to see. The gardens cover 80 acres, which allows enough space to spread out. Concentrated specialty plots, such as the enclosed Ottoman Garden or the English woodland, were separated by broad expanses of lawn shaded by gigantic trees. The overall effect was one of tranquility punctuated by islands of verdant, vibrant life.
Many of the specialty gardens have an international theme. Besides the two mentioned above, you can “visit” Bavaria, China, and Japan. In fact, this year happens to be the 40th anniversary of the 14-acre Japanese Garden, the aptly named Seiwa-en, which means “garden of pure, clear harmony and peace.” Two waterfalls feed into a lake surrounded by traditionally pruned shrubs and trees, raked gravel, and carefully selected and placed stones.
There are a number of formal gardens—not my personal favorite, but still very impressive in their scope—and almost overwhelming in their brilliance. Pull out your sunglasses for the Kresko Family Victorian garden. It’s filled with a riot of dazzlingly bright flowers, all contained inside neatly trimmed boxwood hedges. Nearby, an old-fashioned herb garden included both edible and utilitarian species, edged by sheared germander. Then, if your eyes need a rest from the intense colors, try getting intentionally lost in a traditional Victorian maze.
The Kemper Center for Home Gardening is comprised of 23 demonstration gardens that provide inspiration for local homeowners. How can your vegetable garden be a feast for the eyes as well as the table? (I was particularly charmed by a row of three-foot high ornamental cotton plants, sporting fluffy white bolls in stark contrast to their burgundy-red foliage.) Which grass will make the best turf for your yard? What shrubs are especially suitable for home landscapes? There’s even an indoor area where you can see which houseplants are best for every exposure. Garden staff are on hand to answer any horticultural questions you might have. I’d love to see something similar here in Colorado, where gardening is much more challenging.
There are several indoor spaces. One, the Climatron is a huge tropical conservatory filled with more than 2,800 plants covering 1,400 species. (I recognized many of the same plants as the conservatory in Denver.) Built in 1960, its geodesic dome construction encloses a lot of space without the need for interior supports and won architectural awards.
We skipped the azalea/rhododendron garden, the iris garden, and the various bulb gardens, as they wouldn’t be in bloom at this time of year. I’d love to come back in the spring to see these in their full glory. You can also tour the preserved home of the gardens’ founder, Henry Shaw, which was built in 1849.
A major disappointment was the alpine garden, an attempt to replicate the mountaintop biome of the German Alps. Missouri’s hot, humid summers and soggy, icy winters just don’t provide the climate these high altitude plants require. It hurt to see the struggling, half dead specimens. (If you want to see alpine plants, Denver Botanic Gardens has a good selection at their main, mile-high location—and their Mt. Goliath garden, at an elevation around 12,000 feet is even better.)
We’ve lived in Colorado for almost 25 years now, and I’ve acclimated to our low humidity, limited rainfall, and short growing season. I tend to forget how restricted our plant choices are. St. Louis, situated along the Mississippi River in zone 6a, allows for many species I only dream of growing.
The day we visited, we were blessed by very pleasant weather—highs in the low 80s, and just enough humidity to feel like we were wrapped in a comfy blanket. It’s more likely that you’ll encounter hot and humid—but hot and humid is just what the plants here want.
You can see the results of living in a plant-friendly climate. I couldn’t believe how big everything was! Even the annuals achieved impressive proportions, and the hardwood trees, many over 100 years old, towered overhead. Enormous, brightly colored cannas reminded me of the tropics, ferns filled shady nooks. The gardens are lovely, and I highly recommend a visit the next time you’re in St. Louis.