"Sometimes these names can be a little embarrassing, but they are beautiful plants," says Alan Branhagen, who has been the top horticulturist for four years at the only botanical garden this side of the state. Because his degree is in landscape architecture, much of the imprint left on the gardens has been his.
The newest focal point at the gardens, called the "Island Garden," will open Sept. 9. The island will feature a three-tiered pool rising above the gardens' lake and will house a variety of tropical and hardy plants, from exotic to native Missouri foliage. One of the highlights will be a Victorian lily, like the one in old Tarzan movies. Picture Jane swimming into a river, climbing onto a gigantic lily pad, and then inevitably floating toward a 200-foot waterfall from which Tarzan would have to rescue her. The lily on which she rode was a Victorian water lily from the Amazon basin. Powell Gardens has four types of these lilies, some with flowers that open every evening. Beetles indigenous to the Amazon basin pollinate the lilies, but in Missouri they must be pollinated by hand. The plants have a growth rate almost as fast as a 13-year-old boy, except that they attain their full span every year and recede during freezing temperatures.
The Island Garden won't be finished by summer, but a rock garden that surrounds the island will be on display. There, a huge variety of sedum, succulents, and native plants will hang around to entertain passers-by. Some of the plants have beards, some have babies attached -- you'll have to see for yourself.
Branhagen emphasizes that the gardens are in bloom all year. On July 4, Powell Gardens will celebrate its annual Day Lily Festival with 350 plants on display. By August, the hibiscus will be putting on a great show, and an arbor by the lake is covered in Golden Shower roses -- all of which can be quite a sight on those long, hot summer days.
Powell Gardens used to be a cooperative project with the University of Missouri-Columbia. About 10 years ago, the Powell family turned the site into a Botanical Garden. Only 40 of the 915 acres are developed so far, according to Elizabeth Danforth, manager of development and marketing. "It's a good place to get away from the bustle and noise of the city," Danforth says. "We are also expanding our one-mile nature trail next year."
Several other gardens adorn the property, including a waterfall garden, which hosts a myriad of shade plants, two cascading streams that flow out into a meadow, and a prairie. The perennial garden occupies three-and-a-half acres and includes 1,200 cultivars -- the largest collection in the area.
Observing, however, is not the only activity the gardens offer. An array of classes take place year-round, from basket-weaving to bluebird house-making. This year classes showcase tropical plants that can be grown in the Midwest, including banana trees, cannas, and purple elephant ears.
Sunday afternoon entertainment begins in the garden on June 4 with guitarist Douglas Neight. Saturday, June 10, guests from the island of Samoa will share their culture through food, dance, storytelling, art, and song. In August, the famous Festival of Butterflies opens and visitors will be able to walk among thousands of the beautiful insects.
Powell Gardens is a Missouri portal to paradise. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children, $4 for seniors. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 816-697-2700 or go to www.powellgardens.org.