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Gardens galore
Spring blooms sprout throughout these Midwest gardens

Prairie tall grass/ Kansas Travel & Tourism photo
By Margaret Dornaus
Published: Mar/Apr 2001

If spring is, as Shakespeare noted, a time when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of romance, it is also a time when everyone’s fancy turns to thoughts of being out-of-doors. And for Midwesterners, it is a romance as strong as that of Romeo and Juliet.

After being sequestered indoors during the long and botanically lean months of winter, Midwesterners (perhaps more keenly than others) anxiously await the first sightings of crocuses and daffodils to break through their once-frozen lawns and hibernating flower beds. Spring is worth the wait as blooms burst to paint the previously drab landscape.

Even those with not-so-green thumbs, however, can share in the season’s display of radiant local color. The Midwest’s diverse collection of upland forests, savannas, meadows, glades and prairies ensures that those weary of more interior landscapes have an abundant variety of springtime bouquets to choose from. And public gardens–each with its own horticultural mission and personality–throughout the region offer welcome oases for winter-worn visitors searching to slough off toughened hides and open to spring’s resplendent mystery.

Gardens of harmony and history

Mystery is the principal design element in one of the country’s most meditative gardens: the “wet strolling” Japanese garden contained within the borders of the 79-acre Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Inspired by a 1972 proposal from the Japanese American Citizens’ League, Seiwa-en, “garden of pure, clear harmony and peace,” is one of the largest traditional Japanese gardens in the country. A stroll through the landscaped paths that surround its four-and-a-half acre lake is like a stroll into the poetic lines of a haiku.

The garden’s 19th-century design heightens its goal to encourage visitors to slow down and contemplate the beauty of nature, not only with their eyes but with their imaginations. Every aspect of the garden underlines this basic Zen tenet of attaining harmony in and sensitivity to the world around us. Odd-numbered plantings mirror a more natural asymmetry. The grain of a landscaping rock reveals the earth’s horizontal contours to symbolize balance and strength. Colorful splashes from flowering azaleas and cherry tree blossoms accent the palette of monochromatic greens, browns and blacks that dominate the landscape. And, most importantly, each turn in the garden’s path reveals a surprise previously hidden that encourages visitors to continue their journey.

Thirty miles southwest of St. Louis, the Shaw Nature Reserve (formerly known as the Shaw Arboretum) in Gray Summit, Mo., serves not only as a companion piece to the Missouri Botanical Garden but as a 2,500-acre natural laboratory. Founded as a refuge from the coal-burning pollution that hung over St. Louis in the 1920s, the reserve has since taken on a more primary identity: to educate visitors in the importance of preserving the Ozark’s native landscape. Fourteen miles of hiking trails wind through areas like the Pinetum– where a 19th-century landscape design complements plantings of white pine, bald cypress and Norway spruce. In springtime, these tall trees serve as majestic backdrops for flowering redbuds and dogwoods, as well as thousands of daffodils.

The reserve’s five-acre Whitmire Wildflower Garden, meanwhile, showcases displays of flowers, native grasses and shrubs suitable for planting in home gardens throughout the region. Three distinct areas within the garden–a tall-grass prairie, sandy pine savannas and marsh wetlands–model the kind of habitat restoration that typifies the reserve. Here, woodcocks, savanna sparrows and sedge wrens lift their voices to the Ozark spring.
For more details, call (314) 577-9400 or 1-800-642-8842. Or visit the Web site

Under glass in Chicago

In 1908, a decision to consolidate three Chicago park conservatories under one roof resulted in construction of the dramatic Garfield Park Conservatory. Jens Jensen–the “Dean of Prairie-style landscape architecture”–designed this singular “landscape art under glass” to conjure up visions of Midwestern haystacks. Its two-acre sheltered environment is a sparkling centerpiece for Jensen’s sweeping lawns and his formal flower garden south of Madison Street. Today, the conservatory nurtures thousands of plants cultivated each year for Garfield, Grant and Lincoln Park displays. For more information, call (312) 746-5100, or visit

The Lincoln Park Conservatory is Garfield’s sister facility and another of the city’s botanical jewels. Set adjacent to the grounds of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, this 1895 Victorian-era biosphere is one of the most visited greenhouses in the country. And for good reason: the conservatory is an imposing urban treasure. As you enter, the Palm House greets you with tropical trees–bananas, papayas, and, of course, palms. Leafy fronds, vigorously stretching toward the sky, nuzzle the more than 50-foot glass ceiling.

Behind the Palm House are two smaller glass chambers: the Show House, site of five annual flower shows, and the Fernery. In the latter, staghorns drape themselves exuberantly from the rafters while brightly colored Firebirds electrify the atmosphere. And in a room where most of the plants are more than 100 years old, the Cycad boldly stakes it claim as the conservatory’s oldest. For details, call (312) 742-7736.

Urban weddings

Another zoological showplace is White River Gardens, the sister institution to the Indianapolis Zoo. With a glass-enclosed conservatory and design gardens covered with one-and-a-half miles of flowered pathways, this downtown Indianapolis oasis is an ideal site for an urban wedding. Tall hedge mazes screen the 130-foot diameter lawn and wedding pergola accented by colorful displays of heirloom plants in shades of white, pink, blue and purple. And the Hulman Riverhouse–overlooking the White River and the city’s skyline–accommodates after-ceremony receptions in a picture-perfect setting.

Strolls through the adjacent water garden–where cool, blue-toned palettes of Russian sage and ajuga enhance the meditative effect of reflecting pools–or the Polly Horton Hix Design Garden, an 11-room model for home gardens, add to the day’s enchantment. While there, don’t miss Andrew Reid’s “Midwestern Panorama”–a 360-degree mural of gardening scenes painted on the domed ceiling of the Bud Schaefer Rotunda and one of the most important pieces of public art in Indiana. For more information, call (317) 630-2001, or visit

A prairie queen

You can take a wagon trail ride through the Flint Hills of Kansas for one view of what is the most significant tract of virgin prairie remaining in America. But Strong City’s Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve also provides its visitors with a compelling, 10,000-acre look at the Sunflower State’s grasslands and prairie wildflowers– like lead plants, coneflowers and blue false indigo. This preserve encompasses the site of the former Z Bar/Spring Hill Ranch and has the bonus of offering a glance into 19th-cenutry life on the wide-open Kansas prairie.

Settled in 1879 by Stephen F. Jones, the Z Bar Ranch provided a variety of high-quality grazing grasses for the pioneer cattleman’s ranching empire. His still-standing, native limestone Empire-style house was built on a hill overlooking Fox Creek. Outside, a spring-fed fountain (filled with massive displays of flowers) welcome guests to this National Historic Landmark. For more information, call (316) 273-8494, or visit zbar.html.

Northeast of the prairie in Overland Park, the 300-acre Arboretum and Botanical Gardens serves as an educational and cultural resource for the entire Kansas City area. Eight distinct ecosystems have been identified on the acreage that features hiking trails, a woodland garden of native flowers and trees, and a unique children’s discovery garden that includes a Story Tree, Frog Pond, Council Ring and Mulberry Wood.

Plans for the 21st century revolve around a continued commitment to preserve and restore the park’s native plant environments. The garden’s Visitors Center maintains space for environmental seminars and workshops, as well as a gift shop and restaurant. For details, call (913) 685-3604, or visit

The wealth of garden spaces throughout the Midwest is inspiring. And those listed here are, of course, only a sampling. Opportunities for exploring others are as limitless as our imaginations. After hibernating all winter, point yourself in the direction of the nearest garden path.

Margaret Dornaus is a contributor from Springdale, Ark.

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