Celebrating the Legacy of Shaw Nature Reserve’s Whitmire Wildflower Garden
Take a look at your home garden or the landscaping at your school, office, or place of worship. Chances are they feature some native plants. However, that was not always the case. Those gardens looked very different 25 years ago, when native plants—or wildflowers, as some call them—were not considered “garden worthy.” Fortunately, that changed thanks to a wildflower demonstration garden. And that garden came in the form of a birthday gift.
The Whitmire Wildflower Garden was created to celebrate a birthday. In 1987, local businessman Blanton Whitmire wanted to surprise his wife, Peg, for her 70th birthday. Frequent visitors to Shaw Nature Reserve, the Whitmires always loved nature. On her birthday, Peg arrived at the Nature Reserve for her surprise birthday gift. She thought she was going to receive a puppy; instead, she received a wildflower garden.
Actually, it was the promise of a wildflower garden. In 1987, that area was a woodland overrun with invasive bush honeysuckle. Turning the Whitmire’s vision into reality would take years. Horticulturist Scott Woodbury was hired in 1991 to help build the garden, and in 1993, the garden was officially dedicated. “It was a great opportunity to be on the forefront of something that’s new and controversial in some places,” he says.
Controversial because at that time—and to some degree still today—there weren’t many gardens around the country dedicated to native landscaping and native plants. To many, the word “wildflowers” equals “weeds.” People think native plants will run rampant in their gardens and overtake their beautifully manicured landscapes. Tearing down the misconception that native plants don’t have a place in gardening is exactly what the Whitmire Wildflower Garden was meant to do from the beginning. “I think we’ve really taken native plant gardening to a level that can fit into any botanical garden or neighborhood, and really be seamless as just another garden,” Woodbury says.
More Than Meets the Eye
To understand the impact of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden over the past 25 years, it’s important to first know what native plants are and why they’re important. A native plant can be defined in different ways. At the Nature Reserve, Woodbury’s team defines it as a plant that was growing in the area before European settlement. Others expand the definition to include cultivars or nativars, which are selections of native species bred for specific characteristics. The Whitmire Wildflower Garden has a few cultivars of known local origin, but most of the 600+ species featured were collected in the wild around the region.
Native plants offer a diverse palette of colors and textures that add beauty to any garden while offering benefits such as erosion control and stormwater management. For thousands of years, native species evolved and adapted to thrive in the local climate and with the different soil types, moisture levels, pests, etc. Native plants also have a unique relationship with native wildlife, which contributes to the overall biodiversity and health of the ecosystem. “People are thrilled about bringing native plants into their yards because they’re not just to look at; they’re not just beautiful flowers,” Woodbury says. “We now have an opportunity to have plants in our yards with a purpose.”
Home gardeners and professional landscapers alike are turning to native plants to promote plant and wildlife conservation. The progress is largely thanks to that gift that Blanton gave to Peg and, in turn, they both gave to the region. “The Whitmire Wildflower Garden is the most impressive horticultural display of native plants in the entire Midwest,” says Dr. Quinn Long, Director of Shaw Nature Reserve.
Today, beautiful native landscapes can be found across St. Louis. But those gardens probably would not exist if those property managers or home gardeners hadn’t taken a step forward. They may not have taken that important first step if they didn’t have anything else to look at, so the Whitmire Wildflower Garden was, for some people, that stepping stone. “When you hear about something or read an article, it’s not the same as when you can step into a real place and experience it,” Woodbury says.
If you’re thinking about incorporating native plants into your landscape, take a stroll in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden and get inspired. Woodbury and his team have already done much of the research for you. They’ve looked at each species’ potential landscape use and determined that if it’s something that’s beautiful, small, and wellbehaved, it becomes a core part of what is demonstrated in the garden. If it’s something a bit more aggressive, it might still also be interesting to use in prairies and to manage stormwater. The right plant in the right place.
Celebrate 25 years of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden Saturdays in June as Shaw Nature Reserve hosts the WildFlower Concert Series.
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