Beal Botanical Gardens (1873) SR
William James Beal (1833–1924) was Professor of Botany at M.A.C. from 1870 to 1910. Even a short list of his accomplishments is lengthy and distinguished, including being credited with proving the vitality of hybrid corn.
In 1873, Beal established test plots of 140 different species of forage grasses and clovers in the area now known as “Sleepy Hollow,” just north of West Circle Drive between Beaumont Tower and the Music Building. This is the year that today is considered to be the garden’s founding date.
Beal himself set the official date at 1877, the year he first referred to the collection as “the Botanic Garden” and “made a very modest beginning” by extending his plantings southward toward the Red Cedar River.[Beal, p. 252] The site he chose was bisected, at the time, by a small creek that flowed from a tamarack swamp east of where Morrill Hall now stands, crossed the “sacred space” north of College Hall, and drained into the Red Cedar. Because the site was so low and marshy, Beal correctly surmised that it offered natural insurance against buildings ever replacing his beloved gardens. (His concern was, perhaps, warranted—a site dedicated to the Botany school in 1888 became College Delta just nine years later.)[Lautner, p. 59]
The creek still flows through Beal’s garden, which today is the oldest continuously operated botanical garden in the United States, but during the period from 1888 to 1914, the ravine was incrementally filled in and the water diverted into an underground culvert. Drain covers mark the path of the culvert as it meanders to an outflow at the Red Cedar River. During the spring thaw, the creek occasionally reveals itself as the snow above it melts more quickly than in the rest of the garden, leaving a green stripe through the middle of the white snow.
A portion of W. J. Beal Botanical Garden, August 2006. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.
In one of his more interesting (and enduring) experiments, Beal buried twenty bottles containing 23 species of seeds at a secret location on campus in 1879. The seeds were mixed with sand, and the bottles were left unsealed “so that gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide, and water vapor could freely move in and out of the bottles to more fully simulate soil conditions”; the bottles were buried upside-down and at an angle to prevent moisture build-up.[Telewski, 11 July 2007] Every five years, one of these caches was dug up and the seeds germinated in order to determine how long they can remain viable. The interval has twice been lengthened in order to prolong the experiment, and the fifteenth bottle (retrieved in 2000) yielded two viable species: Malva rotundafolia, a type of mallow; and Verbascum blattaria, a weed commonly called moth mullein that has germinated consistently in every test since 1930. Professor Frank W. Telewski, Ph.D, Curator of the Beal Botanical Garden and principal investigator of the 120-year period in 2000, summed up Beal’s experiment:
“As a farmer plows up his field, he exposes a whole new batch of seeds previously not exposed to sunlight and his nice new clean field quickly fills with weeds. How many times do you need to cultivate your field to rid it of weeds? Well if the seeds can remain viable in the soil for decades, and new seeds are continuously introduced from the surrounding fields, it’s a losing battle until herbicides came along.”[Telewski, 12 July 2007]
This experiment has now been going on for more than 125 years, making it the longest continuously operating experiment in the world. With five caches remaining, it might continue for another century to come.*
Following his retirement, Dr. Beal penned the indispensable History of the Michigan Agricultural College in 1913.
Dr. Wm. J. Beal in his garden, circa 1920. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Archives.