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The Grand Garden Experiment

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Published on: May. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

Nestled in the foothills west of St. Louis lies a multifaceted jewel. Shaw Nature Reserve, maintained by the Missouri Botanical Garden since 1925, comprises 2,400 acres of prairie, oak-hickory woods, floodplain, riparian forests, dolomite glades, woodlands, savannas and marsh wetlands.

The early 1900s were years of great advances in industry for the city of St. Louis, yet the resulting coal smoke and other pollution caused area plant species to suffer. In response, Shaw Nature Reserve (known as Shaw Arboretum until its 75th anniversary in 2000) was established.

The Civilian Conservation Corps became involved in the mid-1930s and cleared miles of trails throughout the reserve. Trees were planted, orchards and pastures were cultivated, and the land was farmed, all in an attempt to study self-reliance and solid land-use practices. Natural forests and wildflowers were allowed to regenerate in noncultivated areas of the reserve.

Shaw Nature Reserve is an experiment that has gained momentum for the past 80 years. Land-use practices such as controlled burning and watershed control evolved alongside environmental awareness and educational outreach. The thread that ties these diverse practices together is the study of human land use.

“You can’t take the human element out of the natural ecosystem,” says John Behrer, director of Shaw Nature Reserve. “Humans have been manipulating Missouri’s landscape for the last 12,000 to 15,000 years.” He explains that the diverse natural communities in Missouri adapted over thousands of years with direct human interaction.

“If our goal is to maintain a high level of biological diversity on Missouri’s natural areas, human interaction and management must continue,” says Behrer. “Fire management, control of invasive exotics, and selective forest management practices are all examples of the ongoing interactions that are needed.”

Management is vital to the success of the reserve’s restored prairies, woodlands, glades and wetlands; however, public access is vital to the success of the reserve itself. It is the connection visitors make to these ecosystems that impacts thousands of lives each year and keeps this experiment current and exciting.

On any given day, school children, bird watchers, wildflower enthusiasts, artists and families may gather at the reserve. They are all seeking the same thing: a pristine environment in which to connect with nature. Shaw Nature Reserve has the resources and attractions to fulfill that desire.

The Bascom House

The Bascom House opened to the public in the spring of 1996. Restoration work on the Italianate-Victorian home incorporates recycled newspapers for insulation and a highly efficient geothermal heating and cooling system. Hardware was forged from recycled metals, the lumber was salvaged, and wood finishes were created from ground earth and stale beer.

While the upstairs houses Shaw Nature Reserve’s staff offices, the downstairs offers a glimpse into the past from eight different characters’ perspectives. The “People on the Land” exhibit is a joint project between the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Botanical Garden and gives an account of human interactions with the land in the lower Meramec Valley over the past 12,000 years. Visitors can experience testimonials from an Osage Indian woman, a sharecropper, and the original owner of the Bascom House, Confederate Colonel Thomas Crews, among others.

The Whitmire Wildflower Garden

A network of paths near the Bascom House leads visitors through the Whitmire Wildflower Garden. This 5-acre tract includes more than 400 species of native plants from a variety of Missouri habitats. The garden is an inspiration to the thousands of visitors who learn about native gardening techniques for their own backyards.

“The Whitmire Wildflower Garden is a great place for people to see native landscaping in action,” says Scott Woodbury, the reserve’s chief horticulturist. “We have demonstration prairies, wetlands and woodlands for those with larger landscapes. For the smaller home gardener, we have a native shrub and vine planting, a native perennial garden, a rock garden, Osage Indian garden, shade garden, and a rain garden.”

Shaw Nature Reserve offers a native landscaping program throughout the year called Native Plant School, which is held monthly at the garden. Class schedules can be found at www.shawnature.org or in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s course catalog, which can be requested by calling (314) 577-9441.

Tours and Trails

One of the best activities at the nature reserve doesn’t require scheduling or equipment and can take from 10 minutes to an entire afternoon, depending on your interests. There are 14 miles of self-guided tours and hiking trails, and each one offers a unique setting.

Trails vary in length from three-quarters of a mile to 2 1/2 miles. Whether you’re interested in an early morning jog by the Pinetum—a collection of pine, spruce, fir and cedar that boasts thousands of daffodils each spring—or just want to take a gentle stroll to the Bluff Overlook Trail, the Shaw Nature Reserve offers one of the best collections of hiking trails in the state.

Of special note is the Prairie Trail, with its spectacular views from an observation deck high above the reserve’s 200 acres of restored prairie. Springtime blooms include shooting star and cream wild indigo, and the entire prairie undulates with waves of purple, pale green and pink as far as the eye can see. Dragonflies, migrating monarchs and many different species of birds soar past plantings of purple echinacea, prairie grass and goldenrod in the late summer and early fall. Each season crafts a new quilt of color.

Families will be delighted with the Wilderness Wagon, which offers guided tours on weekends in May and June from the Visitor Center. This 45-minute, narrated tour of the Shaw Nature Reserve rolls visitors past wetlands, shortleaf pine forest, tallgrass prairie and Pinetum Lake aboard an open-air wagon.

Dana Brown Overnight Education Center

Teachers of grades 4-12, corporate training professionals, conservation organizations and other groups enjoy accommodations and classes offered at the Dana Brown Overnight Education Center, on-site at the reserve. Four historic log cabins surround the large Assembly Building, which is used for training and meeting space. The buildings, which date back to around 1850, have been dismantled from sites within 100 miles of St. Louis and reconstructed with salvaged materials, much like the restoration approach used at the Bascom House. They feature modern amenities and are handicapped-accessible.

Shaw Nature Reserve staff work in tandem with teachers to create an inquiry- and standards-based learning approach. Math and science curriculums weave traditional classroom learning with field investigation. Courses cover orienteering, river ecology, nocturnal hiking, botany, environmental issues and other topics.

“Students and adults staying at the Overnight Center have the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the natural world for an extended period,” says Lydia Toth, manager of education at the nature reserve. “Nighttime activities such as night hikes and astronomy classes offer a unique experience and are very popular. Many of our students have never seen a sky full of stars before, so this opens up a whole new world for them.”

The Center is surrounded by forest, prairie and wetland ecosystems, making it a wonderful resource for outdoor programs and field investigations, or just enjoying some quiet time in nature. Reservations and information may be obtained by calling (636) 451-3512, ext. 6081.

Volunteers are vital to the success of the programs, activities and operations at Shaw Nature Reserve. Volunteers assist staff with tours, education programs, special events, clerical work, greenhouse chores and much more. Without the commitment and dedication of these volunteers, Shaw Nature Reserve would not be able to offer its visitors so much access or so many experiences. Reserve volunteers work hard, but there are rewards. As volunteer Nancy Gelb says, “As a Teacher-Naturalist, I can be part of the future of the planet and maybe even make a difference in the way a child views the world.”

So whether your interest is nature photography, helping children learn about the natural world, cataloging plants or simply enjoying a cool spring morning walk, the next time you have a few hours or an afternoon free, be sure to visit Shaw Nature Reserve.

The Shaw Nature Reserve Statement of Purpose is:

To inspire responsible stewardship of our environment through education, restoration and protection of natural habitats, and public enjoyment of the natural world.

Hours: The grounds are open from 7 a.m. until dark. Visitor Center hours are from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for adults over 65 years, and free for members of the Missouri Botanical Garden and children under 12.

The Bascom House, Crescent Knoll Overlook, Maritz Trail House and sections of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden are wheelchair-accessible.

Shaw Nature Reserve is located 35 miles west of St. Louis at the intersection of Interstate 44 and Highway 100, at Exit 253. Go online or call (636) 451-3512 for more information.

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