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The beginnings of Missouri Botanical Garden

Virginia Mills
10 June 2013
Letter and plans from Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive give a glimpse into the humble beginnings of one of botany's most revered institutions - Missouri Botanical Garden - and its founder Henry Shaw.

The Directors' Correspondence collection contains letters written to Kew from many botanic gardens all over the world. They have origins as arenas to show off the natural plant splendours of tropical colonies, as experimental gardens trialling plants with potential economic value, as physic gardens dedicated to medicinal plants and as learning spaces attached to universities and herbaria . Missouri Botanical Garden was founded, it seems, purely as an act of philanthropy by a man who had made his fortune in St Louis and wanted to give his adopted city the gift of a garden. 

Henry Shaw, Founder

His name was Henry Shaw and in 1856 he wrote to Sir William Jackson Hooker - a complete stranger addressing the Director of the foremost Botanic Garden in the world (Kew of course!), seeking advice on his plans for a botanic garden in Missouri.

Founder of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Henry Shaw (1800-1889)

Writing to Kew

In his letter to Hooker Shaw announces himself modestly as, "a proprietor of some land in the vicinity of St Louis". In fact he was one of the largest landowners in the city and had made enough money to retire by 1840, at the age of just 40. The freedom afforded by such wealth allowed Shaw to travel and develop his enthusiasm for botany. We know he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew during his travels and that, along with the Glasgow Botanic Garden and the gardens at Chatsworth, they were a great source of inspiration.

When Shaw returned to St Louis in 1851 he began work on transforming some of his own land into a garden. Five years later he wrote to Kew for advice and outlined what his planned garden would look like.

Extract of a letter from Henry Shaw to Kew Director Sir William Jackson Hooker, dated 1856.

Plans for a Garden

Shaw writes that the garden is to be 18 to 20 acres in area and surrounded by a wall. It will include an arboretum for such fruit trees as will stand the Missouri climate: apples, pears and peaches. Also plant houses, the building of which Shaw will superintend himself. The letter also shows that he is already determined the garden should be of scientific value rather than purely a pleasure park. He plans to build a museum and lecture hall and has consulted with the principals of nearby medical schools. This approach no doubt pleased Kew's staunch man of science, William Hooker. The advice Shaw wanted from Hooker was botanical: what plants should he populate his fledgling botanical garden with? The answering letter may lie in Missouri's own archive and is perhaps still evident in some of the garden's planting.


Plan of Henry's Shaw's public garden

Download a larger image (pdf)

Shaw's letter is fascinating to me as an insight into the humble and rather heart-warming beginnings of one of the world's great botanical institutions. It is also particularly nice as he sent plans of the position and layout of the garden with his letter (and I love a nice old map). 


Map showing the location of Shaw's public garden, 1856.

Download a larger image (pdf)

Shaw's Garden Legacy

Shaw opened his botanical garden to the public in 1859. Since then it has quadrupled in size and is a renowned centre of science, but is still apparently known affectionately as "Shaw's Garden" and Shaw himself is also remembered in a mausoleum within the garden.



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17 June 2013
Thank you for your comment John. Before writing the blog I read a little about Henry Shaw's early life. The fact that he was born in Sheffield and later assisted his father in his steel business there would definitely seem to have a bearing on how he was able to make his fortune in America. His father's business in Sheffield was ailing and that is what prompted them to take their skills and business to the new market of America and to St Louis in particular as the gateway to trade with the Midwest. It is speculation on my part that Shaw felt a debt to St Louis as the place that had restored his fortunes. It is certainly interesting to consider the many motivations and influences of a philanthropist such as Henry Shaw.
16 June 2013
Your piece omits to mention that Henry Shaw was born in Sheffield, England. It is interesting to speculate on the various influences that brought him to decide to endow a botanic garden in St. Louis. Another source of advice would have been Asa Gray of Harvard University, a close friend of Joseph Hooker and a regular visitor to Kew.
14 June 2013
Thanks for commenting, Victoria. Missouri Botanical Garden is indeed an inspiring and admirable place :)
12 June 2013
It is wonderful to read these words from a modest man who created not just a delightful botanical garden, but an institution that plays a large role in preserving biodiversity.

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