The Garden and the Great War

Observed each year on November 11, Veterans Day commemorates the service and sacrifice of United States military veterans. Like Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, the holiday originated in observance of the end of World War I on November 11, 1918. Although far away from the battlefields of Europe, the Missouri Botanical Garden was not immune to the ripple effects of this great conflict.

The Garden Gets Involved

More than a dozen people associated with the Garden were called to serve after the United States entered the war in 1917. These included secretaries, scientists, teachers, and students.  The School for Gardening was shuttered for more than a year and a half because of declining enrollment, and at least two students were among those sent overseas. Staff also served at home as members of government organizations such as the Raw Products Committee.

School of Gardening 1917
The School of Gardening in 1917. Students James Monteith (top row, right of center) and George Pedlow (middle row, far left) would serve in the war effort.

The Garden even offered up its physical space to help on the homefront. “As soon as the United States came into the war, the Trustees tendered all of the facilities of the Garden to the Government,” reads an excerpt in the Annual Report of the Director in 1919. The Red Cross used a lecture room in the Garden’s administration building to set up a surgical dressing shop.

The Garden’s vast knowledge of plants was a valuable resource as governments and private businesses alike scrambled to keep up with the demands of war. This included research into alternative construction materials like balsa wood, and the study of Cinchona officinalis, the plant used to make quinine for treating malaria.

quinine 1918
Cinchona officinalis (quinine) blooms at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1918.

Fuel Rations and Flowers

Rationing of vital supplies meant learning to do more with less. People were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens so more of the commercial food supply could be sent to soldiers overseas. The Garden also helped spread information about canning and preserving that backyard harvest.

The Garden felt the biggest impact of rationing in 1918 when the government imposed new fuel restrictions. The Fuel Administrator cut in half the amount of coal available to florists, including the Garden.

Coal being the primary source of heating for the greenhouses, many of the Garden’s indoor plant collections were threatened by this new order. The Garden petitioned the government and was granted just enough fuel to save some permanent collections, like the growing number of orchids.

Orchids in Greenhouse 1916
An orchid alcove in the greenhouse range circa 1916.

All other indoor activity was essentially shut down by the lack of coal. This meant outdoor displays were also limited to hardy plants and vegetables, since tropical annuals could not be maintained in the greenhouses.

The 1918 Christmas show was cancelled as red poinsettias were allowed to freeze. The show would return in 1919, thanks to a number of hybrid pink and white varieties that did survive in the heated conservatories.

Poinsettia Show 1920
The Garden’s Poinsettia Show in 1920.

Supporting the Troops

The Garden also did its part to help support the troops. The most notable of these efforts was taking up a collection of books through the Garden’s Library. While our shelves are stocked with books on plants and botany, the Garden was calling for donations that would appeal to all sorts of purposes. The announcement of the book drive includes the following instructions:

“In addition to books of fiction, travel, history, etc., there is a demand for technical books on aviation, electricity, automobiles, first aid and hygiene, and any other subject likely to be of practical use to a soldier… Recent magazines likely to prove attractive to the men at camp will also be received.”

The library itself dealt with the restrictions of war, as the conflict made it much harder to acquire books from Europe.

In addition to the book drive, the Garden also helped soldiers return to civilian life after the war. James Monteith, who was a student in the School of Gardening when he enlisted in 1917, came back and finished the program. After graduation, he became the landscape architect at Glen Echo Country Club in St. Louis County.

The Garden also partnered with The Federal Board for Vocational Education of Disabled Soldiers. The Garden provided training in disciplines such as  plant propagation, greenhouse work, and landscape gardening.

The hope was that this training would help these veterans land work in parks, cemeteries, and private estates. “Both from the pupils themselves and their employers, it seems certain that the instruction given at the Garden has enabled these men to establish themselves in a way which might not have otherwise been possible,” reads an update in 1922. The Veterans’ Bureau would end the program in 1926, wrapping up nearly a decade of Garden involvement in a war that changed world history.

Vocational Students
Vocational students planting tulips.

Cassidy Moody – Digital Media Specialist

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jean Alessi says:

    Very Interesting article. Thanks.

Leave a Reply