A couple of weeks ago I found myself needing to drive to Springfield to have a seat in my car replaced. The operation wasn’t going to take very long and since we don’t get to Springfield very often, Dean and I, along with our friend Tom, set out to make a day of it. After we left the repair shop we headed over to the Springfield-Greene County Botanical Center to meet my friend, George Deatz, for a personal tour of the gardens. All of us thought the plants would be withered and dried up from a brutal summer of heat and drought, but we were in for a real surprise.
Our journey began at the airy and bright Botanical Center, where we were met by an enthusiastic group of school kids eating lunch on the shady portico. Many schools bring their kids to the park to learn more about history, gardening, butterflies, native plants and more. In fact, the center was built with education and community service in mind and was built with a classroom, meeting room, space for public exhibits and a combination bookstore and gift shop. The center also houses a growing horticultural library and the offices for the Friends of the Garden volunteer organization, the University of Missouri Greene County Extension, the Master Gardeners program, and the Springfield-Greene County Parks Department.
Once inside, we met up with George, one of the garden’s most ardent supporters and volunteers. Until last year, George served three-terms as president of The Friends of the Garden, the all-volunteer group that make the gardens possible. Today, George continues to volunteer many hours to the upkeep and promotion of the gardens and the Friends of the Garden (FOG) blog. He also gives informative garden tours to visitors like us.
I knew a little about the park before we set out in the morning and was excited to see the butterfly house. Once there, it didn’t take long to realize what an amazing resource the center and gardens were – or how big!
According to the Friends of the Garden blog, the park began with only 59 acres, which were donated to the City of Springfield in 1975 by the U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Prisons as surplus property to be used as a park. The new park was named after General Nathanael Greene who was was said to be one of George Washington’s most trusted advisors during the American Revolution and his name graces many places and landmarks in Missouri, including Greene County. Eventually, Nathanael Greene Park would be sculpted into a lush and vibrant place, filled with themed gardens such as the Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden, the Federated Garden Clubs Perennial Gardens and the Mizumoto Japanese Stroll Garden. This part of the park also includes buildings from the Gray-Campbell Farmstead, circa 1856. Here, visitors can see how the first settlers in Missouri lived and participate in classes to learn old-time skills, such as soap-making.
In 1998, the 55 acre property adjacent to Nathanael Greene was acquired through a cooperative effort between the Springfield-Greene County Park Board and the C.M. Close family. This parcel became known as Close Memorial Park and is now home to the majority of the 26 botanical gardens. This garden features lovely Lake Drummond and plenty of open space, scenic walkways and a portion of the Ozark Greenways Trail for walking, biking and picnicking. Also located in this part of the park are several creative children’s play sculptures like the one shown above. This bit of creative learn and play art illustrates the life cycle of a monarch butterfly (don’t worry, mom, the black ‘pavement’ is actually a very soft, rubbery pad).
When Close Memorial Park was established in 1998, The Friends of the Garden organization was born. According to their website, “The Friends of the Garden are a nonprofit organization of volunteers from many different backgrounds, professions, livelihoods, and life experiences, all united in the mission to sustain the Botanical Center and create and maintain the botanical gardens.” As you might imagine, they’re always looking for new and enthusiastic volunteers.
The first stop on our tour through the expansive 114 acre park was the Dr. Bill Roston Native Butterfly House. I already knew that the annual Butterfly Festival would take place in just a few days time and that the butterfly house would be at its best and I wasn’t disappointed. Before we even entered the mesh-covered structure, we could see butterflies flitting about. Inside, very specific flowering plants were being grown to satisfy the food needs of each butterfly and its life stages. Inside, a resident intern (working on her Masters thesis on butterflies) answered our questions and pointed out the many features of the house, including a tent that housed night-flying moths and their cocoons.
Although I could have stayed in the butterfly house all day long, but we had a lot of ground yet to cover. As George handed us a map of the grounds, he said, “I hope everyone is wearing their walking shoes today!” We were.
Among the 26 gardens available for visitors at the park, are the Azalea Garden, Butterfly Garden, Columbine Garden, Daylily Garden, Dogwood Garden, Dwarf Conifer Garden, English Garden, Federated Garden Clubs Gardens, Flowering Shrub Garden, Heritage Garden, Hosta Garden, Iris Garden, Kickapoo Edge Prairie, Lily Garden, Master Gardener Demonstration Gardens, Mizumoto Japanese Stroll Garden, Native Shrub Garden, Ornamental Grass Garden, Peony Garden, Redbud Garden, Rose Garden, Viburnum Garden, White Garden, Wildflower Garden, Winter Garden and the Woodland Garden. The Botanical Center and the park are free of charge and open to the public. The only garden that is not free is the Japanese Stroll Garden, which charges a nominal $3.00 entry fee.
So which garden was my favorite? Well, without having seen each garden in its seasonal prime, it’s hard to say which one I would ultimately like the most. But for this visit, I was particularly fascinated by the size and beauty of the ornamental grass garden. With it’s tranquil lake and lovely trees, the Japanese Stroll Garden was quite impressive. But my favorite on this hot summer day had to be the lush and shady hosta garden.
I couldn’t possibly talk about every single garden or feature of this wonderful park, but if you love plants and gardening, you absolutely do not want to miss the Nathanael Greene-Close Memorial Park and Botanical Center. For a free tour like the one we took, just call and ask for George! You won’t regret it!