Eloise Butler was a wanderer of woodlands.
The American botanist and educator founded a 15-acre garden in 1907 in Minneapolis’ Wirth Park. She did so for the benefit of the growing “metropolis” of the Twin Cities and for urban dwellers who needed, like she did, a dose of the natural, green world. The garden contains woodland, prairie, and wetland. The rhythm of the space was, and still is, a balm to the modern day hustle, and the species of plants – hearty, exquisite, productive – are like the stewards who tend the space and the people who call this place home. The plant names alone enchant and delight. Say them aloud: Cardinal Flower, Wild Blue Indigo, Pignut Hickory, Joe-Pye Weed, American Hornbeam, White Trout Lily, Solomon’s Seal....
Susan Wilkins runs The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, a free garden within expansive public parkland on the western boundary of the City of Minneapolis. It is not a formal “garden” in the sense of rows of colorful snapdragons or petunias, but a nature-filled, quiet place that nonetheless requires hours and years of planning and pruning and planting to maintain. Susan is just the 5th curator at the head of the nation’s oldest dedicated wildflower garden, and she embodies the wonder and the introspection of Ms. Butler: “Enter this place,” Susan says, “and there is a sense of discovery. The garden is a jewel box. There is a rich stillness that meets you at the gate. You do not have to think about what to do next, you just open,” and the garden meets you where you are.
Susan notes that while the garden looks “natural,” it is, in fact, intensely curated and cared for. Eloise Butler gardened and shaped the space for 26 years, and even died in the garden – working, botanizing – in 1931 at the age of 81. “Hers was an evolved passion,” Susan says with a nod to Eloise’s longevity, her unwavering commitment to the public space, and to the gardener’s rigorous study of what would grow where. “She inspired many students,” Susan asserts, noting that the first female scientist at the University of Minnesota (Josephine E. Tilden, who taught botany from 1895-1937) had been one of Eloise’s students in the garden.
Like Eloise, Susan is equal parts scientist and educator, with a fair bit of artist added for good measure. “There are many layers,” Susan says, describing both the garden and her approach to managing it. “It requires a certain appreciation for complexity.” She notes the garden’s “plant diversity, bird diversity, mushroom diversity, and biological diversity. There are many textures, colors, smells,” Susan says, adding: “Our job is to continue to cultivate that diversity.”
The work of stewarding 15 acres is intensely physical and ceaseless (even in the dead of winter there are garden chores). Susan relies on a strong-backed and plant-knowledgeable staff, interns, and a committed cadre of volunteers and “backyard botanists” who weed, notate, divide, eradicate and schlep to keep the garden going. Those collective efforts aim for an individual response: “The impact [on the viewer] takes thousands of plants, planting and replanting,” Susan says of the preparation and the garden’s presentation. She recognizes the need we humans have for interacting with wild, wonderful places. “We hope, along the path, at any time of the year, you will encounter an expanse of bloom, and that you will have a momentary sense of awe.”
Good science guides Susan’s curatorial choices in amending the garden, in both protecting the plants and making the space accessible to the public. Removing invasive species like buckthorn and garlic mustard have, according to Susan, “dramatically improved both the visual appeal and the health of these garden areas.” Adding more than 11,000 native wildflowers, grasses, sedges, trees and shrubs during her tenure, Susan is confident she is carving a legacy of health and authenticity. Climate change necessitates adaptability, as well, and she seeks to keep current of research so she can plant for a sustainable future.
The garden is no longer just a “quirky offering” in the city’s myriad park offerings, and Susan has expanded the reach of the garden via social media and other outlets. “This is a legitimate place,” Susan contends, and the data support the visiting public’s interest. The garden has earned a steady, and growing, following: in 2018, the garden hosted 14,025 visitors (for free), and 3000-plus attendees for free or fee based programming. The garden offers everything from solitary walks and quiet contemplation for daily, drop in visitors to group bird watching and full moon hikes, scheduled Heroine History tours, garden story time for toddlers, and naturalist activities for kids and adults. While visitors come mostly from the Twin Cities, the guest book in the visitor’s center contains names from countries all over the world.
The intertwining of humans and horticulture is what Eloise Butler hoped for, and what Susan Wilkins invites. “Was Eloise Butler a shaman?” Susan wonders aloud. “She set something in motion here. The power and force behind her work has tremendous momentum, and the more people who know about the garden, the more that momentum grows. The gift of the garden is its ability to nurture humans in an urban space. That is remarkable.”
Susan returns to her quiet opening: “Scientifically, I don’t know if I could prove it, but when you enter the gate, the air is different. There is something exquisite about this garden. It’s a container. It stimulates your biochemistry, this stunning, bold landscape, but it soothes, too. It really is a sweet spot.”
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Photo Credits: Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden (MPRB) website