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History of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden

Beal Botanical Garden 150th Anniversary Tour - July 15, 2023
Tour given by History Scholar Bill Hodgkins to the Historical Society of Greater Lansing
Video by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing

Time Line History of the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden


  • Professor William Beal is hired as a professor of botany and horticulture at Michigan State Agricultural College (MAC) on July 9, 1870.


  • Shortly after his arrival at Michigan State Agricultural College, Prof. Beal states the need for a campus botanical garden.


  • Prof. Beal establishes a nursery where he grows plants from a number of sources including Kew Gardens and the Arnold Arboretum.


  • The first campus garden is established in an area later nicknamed ‘Sleepy Hollow’ near the present-day site of Beaumont Tower. It consists of 140 species of forage grasses and clovers, along a small tributary of the Red Cedar River. Because this teaching garden would later be merged with the botanical garden, first planted four years later, it represents the founding of the Beal Botanical Garden.


  • The first campus Arboretum is born with the planting of two rows of swamp white oaks on North campus. It is located between present-day Mary Mayo and Campbell halls, which are built in the 1930's.


  • Adjacent to the 1873 garden, another planting extends the garden along a ravine southeast of its initial site, where trees are thinned out and existing weeds and grasses removed to make space. It includes herbaceous dicotyledons, a group of weeds, a small pond, and a low strip for a bog. It is referred to as the “wild garden,” or by Beal Himself, “the Botanic Garden.”
  • Inspired by Charles Darwin's book on hybrid vigor, and a letter from the famous scientist, Prof. Beal becomes the first to publish on increasing yield in corn through cross-pollination studies. The cross increases corn yields by fifty-three percent.


  • Just one year after its formal establishment, the first nonnative plants are added to the garden. They come primarily from Harvard, as gifts.
  • The pond is brimming with plant and animal life.
  • Prof. Beal writes of the progress to the State Board of Agriculture: “Our students agree with me in saying that this is becoming one of the most attractive spots on the College Grounds. Visitors also coincide with our views, if we judge by their comments and the numbers who collect there. The wild garden costs but little, much can be learned from it; it is one of the many things which adds a charm to rural life.”


  • The classic Seed Vitality Study begins. Bottles from this experiment are still being unearthed today. Beal Seed Experiment
  • The number of plant species in the garden reaches 400. Most of these are native to Michigan, but nonnatives exist too: several Solanum tuberosum from Mexico, and Solanum jamesii from Arizona.


  • The garden is arranged by wards, each labeled by a letter stake. Labels of particular plants are not available on site but could be cross-referenced in a separate book kept in the laboratory. Additionally, “no attempt is made to plant allied families next to each other or to arrange species in an artistic manner.”


  • The garden is about one-third of an acre and contained 700 species of seed-plants (about 33% are nonnative plants;). Most plants are perennials, but there are some annuals.
  • The first map of the garden is created by W.S Holdsworth, the instructor of drawing. The map, though parsimonious, shows how it is divided into “wards” based on plant family.


  • Beal initiates the first state Forestry Convention, and spearheads legislation authorizing the first Michigan Forestry Commission. He serves as its director through 1892, crafting the first comprehensive state forestry policy.


  • Heavy pollution is reported in the ponds and creek running through the garden. Beal proposes draining the neighboring swamps.
  • Expansion of the garden is being considered, adding in trees and shrubs.


  • The older labeling system is abandoned in favor of labeling each plant on-site. This enables visitors to immediately identify the plant. This is similar to how we label them today.
  • New infrastructure is established in the garden. A new artesian well would supply the water through pipes.


  • The garden is “greatly enlarged,” and includes a sedge garden. It is speculated that this represents the first sedge garden in the US. Many of the new additions to the garden are wild hardy plants from other regions of the US, particularly New England and the South.


  • Prof. Beal, other staff in the Department of Botany and Forestry, and the wild garden itself participate in the World Fair, known colloquially as “The Columbian Exposition.” The presence of the garden at a formative American event – and one so global in scope – is a testament to its metamorphosis from a modest and provincial space to a much more prominent force.
  • A 25x35 ft. bog is added to the garden.


  • The “leading weeds” are intentionally added to the garden. There are 75 different kinds, and they are labeled. In contrast to the weeds kept in the early 1873 plot, these ones are kept separate from other plants. Unwelcome weeds are removed where they are deemed obstructive.
  • Upgraded labels are placed in the garden. They are ordered specially from New York, made of cellulose paper, and fastened by a small copper wire. 


  • The second map of the garden is published. It is the most robust map yet, indicating the momentum of the garden itself. The map is created by botany instructor B. O. Longyear, in collaboration with Prof. Beal.

  • In a Report to the State Board of Agriculture, Prof. Beal laments the loss of more rustic plant life across the state, and the changes ushered in by industrialization: “Even along the roadside, in many places the fences have been removed and grasses, grains, and potatoes come to nearly the tracks of the wheels [..] the choicer plants are driven farther and farther over the hills or back into remote swamps and small patches of forests.” The botanical garden is not just an educational tool, but a remedy for countering the devastation of the natural world, even if in a small way. The garden now spans about 3 acres (including Sleepy Hollow). There is an upsurge in interest in nonnatives in the garden: 1 in every 2 plants represent an introduced species. At 1335 total species, this means there are about 667 nonnatives. 322 packages of seeds are received this year from the British Kew Gardens, renowned throughout the world, and 60 shrubs from Japan.


  • The Beal Pinetum is established.


  • The number of species in the garden peaks at ~2200-2300.
  • The garden experiences significant flooding difficulties, being situated on a floodplain of the Red Cedar River. The plan moving forward is to “plant on low land nothing that will not endure a summer overflow, and to raise all other land, if not already high enough, to high water mark or above it.”


  • Beal retires from MAC at the age of 77 and moves to Amherst, MA to be with his daughter and son-in-law.
  • The garden is 2.1 acres and consists of 2100 species, a slight denouement from its peak in 1905.


  • Johannes Uphof is appointed as Curator of the garden. Works as the botanical garden and herbarium superintendent before leaving a year later for doubled the salary at the University of Arizona.


  • Prof. Darlington is appointed Curator of the garden, and later the Director of the garden, a title he holds until 1930.
  • Due to enduring water pollution problems, the small stream running through the heart of the garden is relocated to a storm sewer as well as the bogs and ponds in the garden are drained. A small stone arch bridge is filled on contemporary West Circle Drive, which results in Sleepy Hollow being physically separated from the rest of the garden.


  • Beal Published first history book of MAC: History of the Michigan Agricultural College and Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors.


  • The garden gained the nickname “the Sunken Garden”. It held on to this name for the next couple of decades.


  • Beal died peacefully in his sleep on May 12, at the age of 91. On December 17, the State Board of Agriculture approved the recommendation of the Department of Botany to name the garden the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden, in honor of its founder.


  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew trainee, H. L. R. Chapman is hired as head gardener and superintendent of Beal Botanical Garden.


  • The rock garden is created, quickly becoming one of the most attractive features in the garden.


  • Curator and Director Prof. Darlington proposes expanding the Beal Botanical Garden. The expansion would have included a new office building, a children’s garden, a hydraulic laboratory, experiment plots, and many new plant beds along the Red Cedar River.


  • Darlington’s expansion is perceived as overly ambitious by Glenn Phillips, the campus’s landscape architect. As a result, Darlington is relieved of his duties as garden director by the College Board of Agriculture. Superintendent Chapman is appointed curator, and from now on, labor and construction for the garden would fall under the purview of Department of Buildings and Grounds.


  • The garden takes on a more circumscribed role, focused on growing plants of educational interest. Management of the greenhouse is shifted to the garden for the purpose of growing plants for college board orders, receptions, etc.


  • The Women's National Farm and Garden Association provides funding for the enlargement of the garden. The expansion is approved by the Broad of Agriculture in February, creating an area in the garden near the riverbank dedicated to Charles Garfield (former garden foreman in 1870s and good friend of Beal).


  • President Hannah believes the garden is wasting time and funds on arranging floral decorations for board orders. He believes the garden is moving away from its vision; being used as a living laboratory for teaching courses and growing Michigan native plants.


  • Taking the lead from University President Hannah, the State Board of Agriculture transfers the Beal Botanical Garden from the Botany Department to the Office of Campus Park and Planning. This is done to improve its aesthetic appearance, increase its accessibility, introduce more educational opportunities, and facilitate its maintenance. Dr. William Drew, the Chair of the Botany Department, is appointed technical advisor, and Dr. C.L. Gilly as Curator.


  • The entire garden is reorganized by Campus Park and Planning under the direction of Prof. Milton Baron, a Landscape Architect. Baron created the organizational system that remains today, based on four core collections: systematic, economic, ecological, and landscape. According to garden curator George Parmelee, every plant from the original garden is relocated based on their new category, except for the Missouri Primrose. Other additions of this decade include upgraded benches, adding bulletin boards, night lighting, and adding a gazebo to the space.


  • Prof. Baron is made Curator of the garden, with consulting from the Botany Department. Prof. Baron served as Curator until 1954.


  • First public guided tour of the garden on record is conducted by Prof. Baron on August 6th of this year.


  • Beal Botanical Garden commences participation in the international seed exchange program, publishing its first Index Seminum.


  • The American Society of Horticultural Science, in its meeting at Michigan State University, names the Beal Botanical Garden as the ‘finest teaching facility in the country.'
  • Dr. George W. Parmelee is hired to be the Curator of the garden. He introduces a new system of interpretive labels for garden plants and campus trees, inspired by museum labels. The labels allowed visitors to have a comprehensive self-guided tour, in keeping with the spirit of hands-on learning and observation.


  • Mr. Johannes Wilbrink is hired as Head Gardener and Assistant Curator.


  • The west-facing slope of Sleepy Hollow is modified with acid soil amendments to support the growth of acidophilous plants like rhododendrons, azaleas, and ferns.


  • The Michigan Horticultural Society recognizes the Beal Botanical Garden as the most ‘outstanding campus-located botanical garden’ in the country.


  • The Centennial of Beal Botanical Garden is celebrated at MSU and across the state. A commemorative marker is unveiled in the garden, with accompanying speeches. Michigan Governor William Milliken names the second week of May 1973 (May 12-19) "William James Beal Week". On May 11th, Beal Botanical Garden is approved by the Michigan Historical Commission for registration as a state historic site.


  • The old garden shed is replaced by the current toolshed. 


  • Dr. Gerard T. Donnelly is appointed curator. Subsequently, he begins developing the Endangered and Threatened Plant of Michigan collection and establishes the first computer database of accessions and a computer map of campus trees.


  • Dr. Donnelly leaves his position at Beal as Curator after he is offered the Executive Directorship at Morton Arboretum. Gary Parrott, the Manager of the Grounds Department, is made interim garden caretaker.


  • The campus administration re-engineers the operational structure of the Beal Botanical Garden. The duties of the Curator are redefined with a joint appointment between Campus Park & Planning and the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. A new position of Collections Manager is created, yet to be filled.


  • In January, Dr. Frank W. Telewski, then Director of Buffalo and Erie Botanical Garden, is hired as Curator of the garden and Assistant Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology. Ms. Elaine M. Chittenden becomes the first to the new position of Collections Manager.


  • The first tree map of MSU is rolled out, and the Campus Arboretum is formally established. The ecological and landscape sections along the hillsides are organized. e.g., organized into locations like the European section being organized around the two 1865 Norway spruces.


  • Dr. Telewski establishes the plant collections listserv (aabgacol) in cooperation with the Plant Collections Committee of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta.
  • Garden labels are updated throughout the garden. Wooden stakes are replaced by steel stakes, and label descriptions are updated to include new findings (particularly in the Medicinal Plant Collection and the Toxic Plant Collection).


  • In July, a new shade arbor is built by the northern entry of the garden. The funding for the arbor is given by donor A. Gordon Adams, Jr.


  • Beal Botanical Garden celebrates its 125th anniversary and hosts the Midwest regional meeting of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta.
  • Beal Botanical Garden adopts a new logo which incorporates an image of the mullein flower (Verbascum), representing the only genus to germinate consistently in the Beal Seed Viability Experiment.


  • The garden revives the Beal Seed Viability study when Dr. Telewski unearths the 120th year bottle, with help from Dr. Jan Zeevaart, in April. It is the first dig after a 70-year hiatus in the experiment.


  • Beal Botanical Garden is voted "Most Romantic Place" in the Greater Lansing's People's Choice competition.
  • Work begins on the establishment of the Non-Flowering Vascular Plant Collection and the Al and Jean Goldner Daylily Collection.


  • Beal Botanical Garden suffers from budget cuts leading to the loss of staff. Campus Park and Planning is broken up and divided between the departments of Physical Plant, Land Management, and the new Campus Planning and Administration. The garden is then put under the management of the Department of Campus Planning and Administration.


  • On August 2nd, a new steel and bronze entry gate is added at the northern entrance with funding from longtime donor Sally Carlise in honor of her husband John Carlisle. The two were a longtime married couple who had a connection to MSU via the Master Gardener Program. The gates are designed and built by the father and son team of Cary and Jesse Stefani, close friends of the Carlise couple.


  • The plant recorder position is created, allowing the garden to document trees and shrubs around campus. Controversy on whether it should be a permeant position or not arose, but trialing and evaluation showed that the position should be a permeant position.


  • Beal Botanical Garden is put under the management of IPF (Infrastructure Planning and Facilities).


  • Dr. Frank Telewski is appointed from Curator to Director of the garden.
  • The Asian Hillside collection is created. It is dominated by several mature Asian taxa including the dawn redwood which was obtained from the Arnold Arboretum in 1954.
  • New stainless-steel gates designed by Albert Paley are added to the west and east entrances to the garden.


  • In October, Beal Botanical Garden is under the management of the Office of the Provost.
  • Due to increased regulations and the Covid-19 pandemic, Beal Botanical Garden drops out of the international seed exchange.


  • Following the retirement of director Telewski, Alan Prather is appointed as Interim Director of garden.


  • The pollinator garden is established in the southeastern part of the garden.


  • Beal Botanical Garden celebrates its 150th anniversary.
  • The “Nurture Your Roots” wellness program is launched. Included are wellness stations, Red Cedar Riverside Restoration, and invasive plant removal.