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Planting a seed

Mizzou Botanic Garden lays groundwork for the future of horticulture

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos courtesy of Mizzou Botanic Garden
  • Published: Aug. 26, 2009
Campus beauty shot

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Last fall a burst of yellow and white chrysanthemums sprouted in front of an artfully arced limestone wall and instantly became a new icon for the University of Missouri. Within weeks, visiting shutterbugs were snapping shots there, and national television broadcasts of events such as Tigers football games and Barack Obama’s visit to Mizzou opened with views of the new Eighth Street Circle Garden and its quaint brick drive, the Columns and Jesse Hall rising regally from Francis Quadrangle in the background. Suddenly the image — or the sense of place it evoked — was intrinsically tied to the Mizzou experience.

This living attraction — currently clad in a begonia, euphorbia and dichondra planting — is the newest addition to Mizzou Botanic Garden, a horticultural haven that includes 11 thematic gardens, three tree trails and seven special plant collections.

Mizzou’s is not your garden-variety botanic garden. It isn’t fenced in. There’s no admission charge. The plants, chosen for their adaptability to Missouri weather and their educational value as well as their beauty, cover the entire campus, and an estimated 30,000 people view them daily. 

Decade of dedication

This week marks the 10-year anniversary of former Chancellor Richard Wallace’s proclamation of the MU campus as a botanic garden — the culmination of work begun in the 1980s with Chancellor Barbara Uehling’s campus-beautification efforts. 

To celebrate the decade of thoughtful plantings and meticulous maintenance, Peter Raven, the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis and a former University of Missouri curator, visits Mizzou Thursday, Aug. 27, for a series of talks. His public lecture, titled "The Role of Botanic Gardens in Sustaining Plant Diversity for the Next Century," takes place at 2 p.m. in Monsanto Auditorium at the Bond Life Sciences Center.

Dedicated to preserving endangered plants throughout the world, Raven is world-renowned as a botanist and environmentalist. His many accolades include more than a dozen honorary degrees, the Arthur Hoyt Scott Medal, the Priestley Medal, the U.S. National Medal of Science and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. He served as an adviser on science and technology for President Bill Clinton, and Time magazine named him a “Hero for the Planet.”

Garden of learning

Raven’s sustainability and biodiversity work leads a trend among botanic gardens. Pete Millier, who has served as director of landscape services and Mizzou Botanic Garden for four years, says such spots are becoming places of education more than escapism.

“Botanic gardens used to be thought of as a welcome oasis and retreat away from the ordinary and somewhere you went to see exotic things,” Millier says. “To a certain extent that’s still true, but I think we also need to be teachers. We have lessons we can teach to anybody and everybody passively or actively about good, sustainable horticulture.”

Educational programming is among the criteria for botanic-garden status nationwide. For Mizzou, it’s a natural fit. The university is a founding partner in the Plants of Merit program. The staff works with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for adult-education classes. University gardeners give tours to visitors of all kinds and make presentations throughout the state. Multiple academic units use the living laboratory surrounding Mizzou’s classrooms for plant sciences, botany, biology, art — even the physical therapy program recommends the tree trails for fitness routines.

Outside the Bond Life Sciences Center the 6,400-square-foot Lowell and Marian Miller Discovery Garden holds plants used in traditional folk medicine, modern pharmaceuticals and food products, as well as plants integral to current research.

“At Life Sciences, you have the wonderful hanging sculpture inside the building — with the realization that what they’re doing in there could save our lives in the future — and then you walk outside and here are these plants,” Millier says. “We’ve known about their value for several hundred years, and we’re rediscovering those values because now we’re looking for cures for cancer or Parkinson’s Disease or any number of diseases. We’re looking at plant compounds for the future. We’ve come full circle.”

Currently Anne Deaton, who lives in the midst of the gardens in the Residence on Francis Quadrangle with Chancellor Brady Deaton, is working with Museum of Art and Archaeology Academic Coordinator Arthur Mehrhoff to create interactive learning ecologies centered around the residence and the Quad. The project would integrate history and horticulture organically. Jefferson Garden, for example, is modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s grounds in Monticello — with cardinal flower, columbine, Virginia bluebells, sweetshrub — and a tree planted there is a seedling from a Monticello tree.

“There’s a very visceral connection to something historical,” Millier says. “We’re a living museum.”

The gift that keeps on living

Private donors are the sole source of support for the garden; as a result, sprigs of personal history are planted among the flora. Along with general donor programs, contributors have the option of funding memorial trees, gardens or benches labeled with commemorative plaques.

Anne and Brady Deaton’s favorite spot on campus is on the west side of the library, where the couple’s children dedicated a tree in honor of their 40th wedding anniversary two years ago.

“There is a bench nearby that affords a lovely view of campus, and we like to sit and have ice cream there,” says Anne Deaton. “I love the concept of dedicated gardens and trees and even benches. Reading the plaques gives you a very warm feeling and adds to your enjoyment of the space. I hope this way of supporting the botanic garden continues to grow because that, in turn, will provide the financial stability to keep the existing gardens beautiful and continue to create new ones.”

The garden gives back a hefty return on investment — both tangibly and intangibly. A Carnegie Foundation study and other research indicate that the No. 2 reason students and faculty cite for choosing an institute of higher learning is the appearance of the school. The Mizzou community is inextricably tied to and shaped by the surroundings.

“We’re allowed to make such a dramatic impact in people’s lives without even knowing it, without them even realizing it,” Millier says. “At least one of those 30,000 visitors any day is going to see something significant in our garden that may change their life forever. I never cease to be amazed. I’ll be out on campus and see something I never saw before or never fully appreciated before. That’s part of the passive education we’re participating in. Some way somebody is going to absorb something. And if they do, we’ve succeeded.”

Read more in:  Health & MedicineAgriculture & the EnvironmentOn CampusSpecial Features & SeriesFamily & Community

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012