Celebrating 150 years: the legacy of Michigan State University's W.J. Beal Botanical Garden
For 150 years, the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden at Michigan State University has been a place for scientific study, a habitat for native plants and a quiet spot for students to relax in nature.
Dan O’Brien remembers first visiting the garden when he was student at MSU in the early 1980s. He lived with three roommates in his dorm and couldn’t study quietly there.
“I came up to the library to study at night, and I would look down from the library, and I could see that there was this garden down there," he said.
After that, he would make it a point to come to the garden during pivotal points in his life like right before his entrance interview for MSU’s vet school.
“I walked through the garden on my way over to Fee Hall which was where the interviews were just to kind of bolster my spirit and then came back the same way when I got done, and that was the year I got into vet school," he said.
Now retired, O’Brien volunteers at the garden in hopes of giving back to a place that’s provided him with so much solace throughout the years.
“It's a lot of weeding in the summer. In the spring, before things leaf out, you pick up the sticks and debris that have fallen under the trees from the winter," he added.
The Beal Garden sits on five acres along the Red Cedar River on the north end of campus. It's located in what was once considered a floodplains wetland, according to Bill Hodgkins who works part time as a historian at the garden.
“There was a lot of bogs. There's a big creek that ran through the middle of the garden in a ravine, and so it was very different," he said. "There was a lot of wild shrubs, trees.”
The garden was named after American botanist William Beal. He was hired in 1870 as a professor of botany and horticulture at what was, at the time, known as Michigan State Agricultural College. Hodgkins says Beal saw the overlooked swampy area as the perfect ground for growing native Michigan plants.
“With the farm industry growing, a lot of our native Michigan plants were being pushed into more and more remote wilderness like swampy areas," Hodgkins said. "And so, through his botanical garden, he wanted to be able to provide students the opportunity to work with plants physically versus just using textbooks.”
It was in 1873 that Beal established the first campus garden near where Beaumont Tower is today. It consisted of mostly forage grasses and clovers. It took a lot of work to turn the area from a wild swamp to a place where Beal and his students could learn.
“The Red Cedar River, it floods a lot back in the day, especially. The ground was even lower than we knew it today. Over time, they put more and more soil on it to prevent the river from flooding over, but that was a constant issue they kind of had to combat" he said.
Even though Beal was an expert, Hodgkins says it took some experimenting to build the garden and keep plants thriving through Michigan’s winters.
“I think it was a learning experience even for him," he added. "I think he didn't have really that much experience managing botanical gardens, and so he just kind of picked it up off all as he went along.”
Hodgkins says that it was through his work at the garden that Beal discovered that when he cross-pollinated two types of corn plants the result would be a hybrid corn that produced 50% more yield.
Today, a statue about that research stands on the west end of the garden. The statue claims that Beal was the first person to cross pollinate corn.
“If you kind of look at the story deeper, Native Americans were actually the first ones to hybridize corn, they cultivated this plant called Teosenti," Hodgkins said. "And this was a ancient plant that eventually got turned into what we know as corn.”
Garden staff are working to add more context the statue and Beal's work with educational efforts.
Beal retired from the school in 1910, leaving behind a garden teeming with more than 2,000 species of plants from all around the world.
Alan Prather, the current director at Beal Botanical Garden, says the labeling system Beal used in the late 19th century to mark plants is similar to the one his staff uses today.
“Each of those plants has a little sign that tells a little story about that plant and how that plant interacts with people," he said.
One of these sections is for injurious plants, or ones that can cause harm. Prather says it features poison ivy and stinging nettle.
“As far as I know, no other botanical garden in the country grows poison ivy as a demonstration plant. But we know people want to know what it looks like and it's marked by a red label," he added.
Hodgkins says Beal might not have been able to imagine what the garden would look like today, 150 years later.
“He did found the garden for the sole purpose of protecting Michigan native plants, " Hodgkins said. "I think he would be happy that his garden that he founded is still continuing on that mission.”
And the next 150 years for the garden promises to be just as busy, with plans to restore the Red Cedar River to continue to prevent it from flooding and to stop the spread of nonnative plants on campus.