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Commentary: Edgar Denison Left A Legacy In A Patch Of Blue-Eyed Mary

Collinsia verna
Provided by Scott Woodbuyr

Blue-eyed Mary is a Missouri wildflower that germinates in winter, enduring freeze and thaw before blooming in spring. Its bloom spans the month of April when Virginia bluebells, wild geranium and wild sweet William are each making colorful contributions to shady Missouri woodlands. In nature it grows along rivers in carpets where fall flooding carries away leaf litter, allowing seeds to germinate successfully.

In the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, leaves are raked up in November or December to mimic natural flooding and ensure seed sprouting. Blue-eyed Marys easily recognized by two round dark-green seed leaves that have purple streaks and freckles. On subzero days they freeze like lettuce in an old refrigerator then thaw, unharmed, like cold hands brought close to a wood stove on a winter day.

In 1992 the Whitmire garden received its first blue-eyed Mary seed. It came from Edgar Denison, a modern Johnny Appleseed who maintained a patch at his Kirkwood home where he could easily collect seed to give away.

From shirt-pockets full of seed, Denison sowed blue-eyed Mary along the river trail at Shaw Nature Reserve and at Emmenegger Nature Park in Kirkwood. He shared seed for a patch in the English Woodland Garden at Missouri Botanical Garden and for other patches growing at the homes of friends and neighbors who were given or snitched seed from beneath the bows of the old white oak by his sidewalk on Adams Avenue.

Cypripedium Reginae
Credit Shaw Nature Reserve
Cypripedium Reginae

Denison, who died in 1993, was also a pianist, a master gardener and an artist who drew and painted hundreds of Missouri wildflowers. His original watercolors will be on exhibit throughout April at Powder Valley Nature Center in Kirkwood.

I’ve known few people who have accomplished as much in one lifetime. Fewer still have touched the lives of so many Missourians through so many ways. To his friends and neighbors Denison seemed as common as a tick on a hot summer day, but a rare individual he was. A rare individual indeed!

Denison passed several plants around St. Louis: plants like rosy turtlehead, southern blue flag iris, and pink New England aster to name a few. They were usually given with the appropriate pedigree to a good home and with strict planting instructions. He once dug up a gift tree at a neighbor’s to see if it had been planted correctly. It was, and Denison planted it back satisfied that his instructions were followed.

He rescued southern blue flag iris Iris virginica var. shrevei  from a wetland at the intersection of Interstate 44 and Highway 141 in Fenton before a highway construction project.

Similarly, Denison rescued rose turtlehead Chelone obliqua near Hannibal, Mo., after a plow cut through the rare patch leaving roots exposed and stems buried. Subsequently, this species has been reintroduced to a number of natural areas and has become so common among St. Louis gardeners that it is readily available at native plant nurseries.

Copper Iris by Edgar Denison
Credit Shaw Nature Reserve
Shaw Nature Reserve
Copper Iris by Edgar Denison

Other pedigreed plants that Denison shared with Shaw Nature Reserve staff include Rose mallow Hibiscus militaris from DeSoto, Copper Iris Iris fulva  from Mingo Wildlife Refuge, Cardinal flower Lobelia cardinalis collected along the Meramec River in Pacific, Oenothera triloba from St. Francis State Park, and multi-colored New England asters Aster novae-angliae from a prairie near Hannibal.

Edgar Denison was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1904 and immigrated to the United States in 1927. He spent a lifetime enjoying wildflowers, first as a student in Germany, then as an amateur botanist leading hikes at Shaw Nature Reserve and throughout Missouri. He later became one of Missouri’s most celebrated wildflower enthusiasts through his popular field guide, “Missouri Wildflowers.”


An exhibit of Edgar Denison's original botanical artwork at Missouri Department of Conservation's Powder Valley Nature Center, 11715 Cragwold Road, Kirkwood, opens April 5 and runs through the month of April. Events include:

April 5:  Gallery Opening, 6 - 8 p.m.

April 12:  Nature Drawing class, 10 a.m. - noon

April 22:  Gallery Talk, 6 - 6:45 p.m., 7 - 7:45 p.m.

Scott Woodbury is the Ccurator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, where he has been developing the garden for 24 years.