Story Highlights

  • St. Louis has two accredited arboretums, which offer guided and unguided hikes.
  • St. Louis arboretums feature notable specimen plantings of trees and shrubs.

What do Anheuser-Busch co-founder Adolphus Busch, frontiersman and explorer William Clark, and Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs have in common?

They are all buried in “a place for life,” according to Michael Garrett, director of horticulture and curator of living collections at Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Some people might disagree and say that a cemetery is all about death. But this burial ground in north St. Louis doubles as a 314-acre arboretum filled with 8,000 trees and 500 varieties of cultivar.

On the south side of the city is another plot of land, Tower Grove Park, that people might also be surprised to hear is about more than its farmers’ market and kickball games. This park is also an arboretum filled with almost 8,000 trees and wooded plants.

The two arboretums — the only two accredited ones in St. Louis — prove that natural havens can exist amidst the concrete jungle.

“If you’re in the center of the property, far away from any roads, any traffic, you hardly see any people, and it’s just a serene experience that anybody can be a part of,” Garrett said of the cemetery, which was founded 1849.

For those unfamiliar with what an arboretum is, a good description comes from the Klehm Arboretum in Rockford, Illinois: “An arboretum is an area devoted to specimen plantings of trees and shrubs. Distinct from a forest, nursery, or park, it is in a sense an outdoor museum of trees.”

Bellefontaine Cemetery

Beauty amid the graves at Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Amidst the trees at Bellefontaine, are the graves and mausoleum of Christians, Orthodox Jews, feng shui practitioners, Muslims, and free-thinking Germans, among others, says Daniel Fuller, Bellefontaine event and volunteer coordinator. “We have accepted all people since 1849, and if you stop and think about it, that’s pretty phenomenal because whether you believe or not, you are allowed here.”

Interestingly, Bellefontaine is also an unsegregated cemetery with free and enslaved people of color who were buried in Missouri, a slave state, before the Civil War.

“It has been for all from the very beginning,” Fuller said.

There are plenty of industry titans buried on the grounds, including James Smith McDonnell, one of the founders of the aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas, and George Warren Brown of the Brown Shoe Company.

The organization offers a number of different tours that allow visitors to see Mausoleum Row, where Brown and other notable figures are buried, and unique trees like a state champion American elm. The latter, which shades McDonnell’s burial place, is older than the cemetery and is the largest of its variety in Missouri.

The cemetery also features a state champion red mulberry tree that “looks like the world’s biggest bush,” Fuller said.

“This is an example of beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Fuller said while walking the grounds. “Some people don’t like this tree because it is so gnarly. I think it’s wonderful because it shows its age.”

About 10 miles south of Bellefontaine is Tower Grove, which was founded in 1868 on land donated to the city by Henry Shaw, a businessman and botanist.

Tower Grove Arboretum

A garden setting at Tower Grove Park. (Kari R. Frey)

The 289-acre property is one of only seven parks in the US designated as a National Historic Landmark.

“We are one of the finest examples of a 19th century public park, specifically in the gardenesque style,” meaning a design that revolves around a principle of order and symmetry within the garden in addition to embracing exotic species within the landscape, said Kevin McIntyre, Tower Grove forestry supervisor.

Like Bellefontaine, Tower Grove also features two state champions: a bigtooth aspen and a swamp privet. McIntyre also recommends people visit a catalpa tree on the south side of the park, near the Turkish Pavilion.

“It’s not only a very special tree, just in its form that makes it seem almost like a home for elves, and it just has beautiful low branches and is very majestic, but it is also a great example of how we are trying to preserve our trees,” McIntyre said.

The Tower Grove staff noticed that the branches were starting to fail, so they installed support on the lower limbs to prop them up and ensure they remain healthy.

McIntyre and his colleagues also work to educate the public about the importance of trees. The park coordinates with surrounding schools to organize field trips in which students visit and learn about the role trees play in improving air quality, lowering land surface temperature, and benefitting visitors’ psychological health.

“I think Tower Grove Park has a very critical role in educating the local community in a natural environment” and helping them understand “how the trees benefit them and their community,” McIntyre said.

Tower Grove Park cyclist.

A cyclist takes a break in Tower Grove Park. (Kari R. Frey)

In order to do that, Tower Grove and Bellefontaine must manage a number of challenges, including funding and pests and diseases.

Four years ago, Bellefontaine staff had to remove 75 percent of its ash trees because of the emerald ash borer, a beetle that entered the country from Asia in 2002 and has since destroyed millions of trees.

At Tower Grove, McIntyre must combat problems like the growth of hypoxylon, a type of fungus that can stunt growth or even kill trees. In order to deal with infestations and plant new trees, Tower Grove and Bellefontaine rely on grant funding and donations from visitors.

The need for donations has become particularly acute at Tower Grove during the COVID-19 pandemic because people are not renting its pavilions for events, McIntyre said.

Bellefontaine likewise needs funding because it expects to be around for a while, Fuller said.

“We are less than half full” in terms of how much space there is for burials, he said. “We will be an active cemetery for at least another 200 years.”

Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.