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
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.
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.
- Missouri Botanical Garden
- Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive is online at Jstor Global Plants and Shaw's letter and garden plans will be available to view there soon.
- Find out more about the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation project.
- If you want to know more about the origins of Missouri Botanical Garden, check out this illustrated history from their archive.
- For more on the life of Henry Shaw, including how he made his fortune, go to his Wikipedia entry.
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