Since its creation in 1873, the Beal Botanical Garden has served as a place of research, education and tranquility for Michigan State University (MSU) and the East Lansing community. The seven acre plot with more than 2,200 unique species of plants was created by professor Dr. William J. Beal and has been carefully maintained for 150 years.
ELi spoke recently with Dr. Alan Prather, the interim director for the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden, director of the MSU Herbarium, and associate professor in the College of Natural Science.
“Dr. Beal was a botanist,” he said. “He was a plant breeder. He was a forester. He was a plant taxonomist. He grew up in Michigan at a time when the whole lower peninsula was being clear cut. Forests were just being cut down and lumber shipped back east, and that really troubled him and so that led him to start being one of the first people to ask, ‘Well, can we regrow a forest from nothing?.’
“He just made so many contributions in so many ways,” Prather said. “He really was a seminal plant biologist. His impact on campus is that so many departments now can trace their roots back to Beal…Forestry, Horticulture, Plant Soil Microbial Biology, Plant Biology, all those academic departments really have their roots go back to Beal.”
MSU campus looked much different when Dr. Beal started the garden.
When Beal started the garden, the campus was much less developed than it is today. Beal lived north of today’s garden in Cowles House, which is now used to house the university president. For 39 years, Beal cared for gardens at Sleepy Hollow, a historic area north of West Circle Drive, and today’s Beal Botanical Garden is just south of that road.
“Nobody in today’s world would start a botanical garden in the floodplain of a river,” Prather said, referring to the Red Cedar River which often floods in the spring. “There was a stream running through Sleepy Hollow [in Beal’s time] and there were bogs.
“[Beal] would travel over parts of Michigan and see that everything had been deforested, that agriculture went right up to the roadsides and he wrote about how he felt like if he didn’t find a place for people to see native plants of Michigan, they weren’t going to exist in the wild anymore.”
The garden has seen significant changes over the years, one of the most lasting coming from former university president and East Lansing resident, John Hannah.
“One really pivotal moment of change was 75 years ago when Hannah actually removed the garden director from his position because he didn’t like the way the garden was going,” Prather said. “He [thought] it was a little too wild [and] he wanted something a little more formal, and in the 1950s is really when the garden that exists today emerged. The formal beds planted in a row and the global connection, the style of the garden all originated back to that point in time.”
When this shift happened, Prather said, the collection became more global, adding plants from around the world as Beal did during his tenure. However, best practices have paused the practice.
“We’re not ever going to get rid of that global collection,” he said. “But with current thinking of the potential to introduce invasive species…We’ve just put that program on a hiatus while we think more carefully about our spot in the world. We’re kind of thinking of some of the things we’re doing right now as rewilding the garden. We’re not changing the program very much, or changing the mission, but we’re changing the focus back to native plants.
“[We’re] taking care of our Red Cedar side,” he said. ”We have a restoration project going on. For the pollinator garden we’re adding, we’re using only plants and we’re trying to go back to an inventory of Beal’s time in the late 1880s, and using some of the native plants he was growing in the garden in our pollinator garden as a way of making that historical to him.”
Summer is a busy time in the garden on the Red Cedar River.
The garden has a busy schedule of summer events, including tours, concerts, yoga and an anniversary celebration planned for later this fall.
While garden officials can’t say how many individuals visit the grounds each year, Prather said 3,500 guests have participated in official programming just this year.
“Let’s keep in mind that the garden doesn’t really close,” he said. “What I can tell you is this year we started tracking contacts, how many people participate in our formal programs, they’re coming on a tour, they’re visiting us on our musical garden events, they might stop by for one of our little festivals. We’ve just started tracking those people and already we’re at 3,500 contacts for this year. And, of course, that doesn’t include people who might just come down on a weekend and spend a couple hours in the garden.”
Daniel Mok of Markham, Ontario, Canada, visited the garden on July 4. Mok will begin a PhD program in Plant Biology at MSU in August.
“I actually didn’t know the garden was celebrating an anniversary,” Mok said. “I just heard that it was one of those bucket list MSU things that you had to see and experience. I was surprised by just how big the collection was.”
Mok took the opportunity to photograph some of the plants, insects and wildlife he witnessed.
In the fall, the garden will begin work on a master plan, hiring a consulting firm to consider the space and how it might be better used to meet the needs of its mission.
“Beal has some writings that he mentions how he started the garden as an educational and research tool and he was so pleased to see people come into the garden just to enjoy plants, just to see the beauty of the garden,” Prather said.
“The most exciting thing happening in the garden today is this refocus on the academic mission, that alignment with academic programs of the university,” he continued. “[In] January, we actually got our very first full-time education person, so now we have an education program director that has been really important for us as we watch the garden grow. That tie to the academics, it’s a special thing about Beal Gardens, that it really has academics at the center, where research and teaching were part of the gardens’ very founding.”
The Beal Botanical Garden is “everybody’s garden.”
When asked what he wanted the East Lansing community to know about the garden, Prather was quick to offer an invitation.
“The garden is everybody’s garden,” he said. “We want everybody to feel like they belong and they’re part of the garden. They’re welcome and we want to build a space where people are comfortable and feel safe and they can learn about plants.
“Beal Botanical Garden is the place that illuminates the interconnectedness between people, plants, and place. All three of those things are really important to us,” Prather said. “We have this fantastically beautiful space right along the iconic Red Cedar River, right along the heart of Michigan State University’s campus that is tranquil, that is beautiful, that is natural, that is educational.
“There is so much special about our place and our people. We get visitors from all over the world. We try to make sure when people leave they can think about how they can make the world a better place. How they can protect their community and their plants and their gardens. We hope they experience all of that.”