For 160 years, the Missouri Botanical Garden has been committed to the growth of St. Louis. Each generation has cultivated the seeds planted by those who came before to advance our mission across the region and beyond. In this season of gratitude and thanksgiving, Vice President of Education Sheila Voss reflects on the role the Garden plays in our community today.
For those of us who have personally submerged a tiny seed in gently overturned soil, we know this truth: Small things, when planted with care and intent, can overcome enormous odds and bloom in beautiful, life-sustaining ways.
Since opening in 1859 as a science-driven botanical garden for the use and enjoyment of all, the Missouri Botanical Garden has been planting its own seeds of change in St. Louis and beyond. From transforming the actual landscape and lifescape of the region to cultivating ideas that disperse and grow where they land, the Garden’s impact isn’t limited to its own soil. In truth, perhaps the most important and sustained impact can be seen in places, projects, and people far and wide, now thriving on their own, but still benefiting from early seeds of Garden support, encouragement, expertise, and partnership.
Beloved Outdoor Gems
To be sure, the most visible “fruit” of Garden seeds are the brilliant outdoor places that St. Louis residents and visitors alike can enjoy. The Missouri Botanical Garden itself took root and blossomed into what it is today thanks to founder Henry Shaw and the people who helped him. After establishing the Garden, Shaw donated a much larger tract of adjacent land to the City of St. Louis to be “used as a park forever,” eventually to be known as Tower Grove Park. Not long after, the Garden secured an even bigger tract of land west of the City, known today as Shaw Nature Reserve.
Fast forward to more recent history and consider the Garden’s influence on the early formative years of such places and organizations as varied as Citygarden, the Sunflower+ Project: STL, and Gateway Greening. In each case, the Missouri Botanical Garden planted seeds of support, guidance, and encouragement throughout different stages of development and growth.
In each case, those seeds germinated and broke through to sun. Today, 160 years after opening, the Garden is a National Historic Landmark and a world-renowned center for plant science, conservation, horticulture, education, and sustainability that plays host to more than a million visitors a year. Shaw Nature Reserve is a destination like none other—a hub for environmental education, native plant horticulture, and ecological restoration. Tower Grove Park is a much-loved municipal park full of vibrant, colorful life. Citygarden is a popular playspace and urban oasis in the heart of Downtown. The Sunflower+ Project: STL is beautifying vacant lots in Old North and Dutchtown, and benefiting people, plants, and pollinators at the same time. Gateway Greening is a thriving non-profit that is transforming the region through urban agriculture, supporting a network of more than 200 community gardens and counting. Sweet fruit, indeed.
Recognition as a Hot Spot for Plant Science and Conservation
Beyond physical places, Henry Shaw’s philanthropy also provided early seeds of support for institutions such as Washington University in St. Louis, where Shaw endowed the George Engelmann professorship in botany. Beyond the academic realm, the Garden’s support over the past 160 years has helped equip a diversity of institutions to advance the much-needed work of plant science and conservation. In many ways, this support “seeded” St. Louis to become the regionally and globally recognized hub for plant science it has grown into today.
These seeds of support and leadership can be seen in the Garden’s joint research associates shared with Washington University, Saint Louis University, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and other institutions. They can be seen in the timely and urgent work of these researchers, ranging from sustainable agriculture and climate change mitigation to medicinal plant discovery and conservation genetics. They can be seen in the rise of Shaw Nature Reserve as the region’s go-to resource for native plant horticulture and ecological restoration. Broader still, they can be seen in Garden President Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson’s roles serving on the boards of the Cortex Innovation Community and BioSTL, both initiatives aimed at catalyzing economic development while contributing to a more livable world. They can be seen in the recently created Living Earth Collaborative™, a biodiversity-focused research partnership between Washington University, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Saint Louis Zoo that seeks to accelerate science-driven solutions to biodiversity loss.
As more professionals across different sectors—academic/research, government, and business—triple-down on plant science, they are realizing the significant potential of plants to solve global issues, create jobs, and promote sustainable livelihoods. Increasingly, more of this work is being done right here in St. Louis. Henry Shaw would be proud.
A More Sustainable Region
While sustainability wasn’t a tip-of-the-tongue concept of his day, Henry would also be proud of the Garden’s leadership role on this front. The Garden’s commitment to sustainability manifests throughout its operations. Interactions with visitors and the general public are each like a carefully planted seed, something that could grow into greater understanding, new perspectives, and changed behaviors.
Visitors to the Garden’s annual Green Living Festival leave more informed, inspired, and equipped to take real action in their own homes and communities to live less resource-intense lives. Each year, the thousands of people who attend the Garden’s signature festivals experience the region’s “gold standard” in waste management for large events, with vendors required to use all compostable disposables and Zero-Waste Ambassador stations set up across grounds, diverting waste to compost and recycling streams. The Garden’s plastic pot recycling program grew from a small home-base operation to a region-wide program now operated by a third-party recycler. Since 1998, this one program has diverted more than one million pounds of horticultural waste from landfills.
Extending far beyond its own sites, the Garden’s “seeds” of sustainability have been planted across the region: places like the 21 municipalities benefitting from the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance, a project of the Garden that uses plant-based solutions to manage stormwater, prevent erosion, and improve water quality. Seeds of support have also been planted in more than 200 local businesses that are part of the Garden’s St. Louis Green Business Challenge and the thousands of people each year who seek out sustainability answers and tips from the Garden’s Green Resources Answer Service. Garden staffers have seeded the OneSTL Sustainability Plan with plant-inspired approaches to advancing biodiversity, water and green infrastructure, and clean energy. In fact, there are more than 35 sustainability based programs the Garden coordinates in the community. New in 2019, the Garden is planting a significant seed in the solar market through its launch of Grow Solar St. Louis, a group buy program aimed at incentivizing and simplifying the transition to solar energy for homeowners and businesses.
A Culture of Volunteerism and Civic Engagement
Perhaps the seeds that have proven the most fruitful are the thousands of volunteers who help make St. Louis greener, healthier, and full of life. The culture of volunteerism and civic engagement is strong in St. Louis. As an organization significantly reliant on volunteers for its daily operations and fully aware of the impact of this special group of people, the Garden also seeks out ways to activate volunteers beyond its borders.
From the St. Louis Master Gardener network that began in the early 1980s to its more recent region-wide recruitment of citizen stewards and citizen scientists, the Garden knows the undeniable impact of people who take what they learn from the Garden and apply it for the betterment of their own communities. The Garden-coordinated Honeysuckle Sweep for Healthy Habitat campaign is testament to that. In the past three years, this semi-annual stewardship action project has activated more than 2,000 volunteers to remove invasive bush honeysuckle from over 70 acres across 60 sites. On the citizen science front, the Garden collaborates with regional partners to encourage people of all ages and abilities to get out and document nearby nature, data that is helping shape a regional biodiversity atlas.
The Missouri Botanical Garden is just one part of an entire ecosystem of people, organizations, and agencies working to advance and lift up St. Louis. The only way the mission of the Garden will ultimately be achieved is when every single person in this ecosystem finds ways to live lighter, ensuring a livable world for all. Until then, the Garden will continue to carry on its tradition of sowing seeds everywhere it goes, knowing that those seeds, if given the chance, can literally change the world.
Vice President of Education