It’s only fitting that a leatherwood shrub shades a memorial plaque unveiled 85 years ago this week at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis. It reads:
To this sequestered glen Miss Butler brought beautiful native plants from all sections of our state and tended them with patient care. This priceless garden is our heritage from her and its continued preservation a living testimony of our appreciation. Here her ashes are scattered and here her protective spirit lingers.
Eloise Butler, born in Maine in 1851, moved to Minneapolis at the age of 23 to teach school before blossoming into an acclaimed and tireless botanist. A 1911 photo shows her traipsing through a tamarack bog at 60, collecting specimens in a long dress and high hat of the era.
Her philosophy was simple: “My wild garden is run on the political principle of laissez-faire,” she wrote in 1910. “A paramount idea is to perpetuate in the garden its primeval wildness.”
According to an anecdote that Butler biographer Martha Hellander unearthed for her 1992 book, “The Wild Gardener,” Butler wanted to decorate her wild garden with some leatherwood, with its light green leaves and small yellow flowers. The shrub had died out in a spot she’d seen it years earlier.
A student mentioned seeing some leatherwood near the College of St. Thomas along the Mississippi River in St. Paul, which Butler vowed to visit “this very day” she received the “vague” tip. She “scoured” the area, she wrote in one of her many essays, without success.
“As it was then past the dinner hour and high time for me to go home, I left the place reluctantly and started for the streetcar,” she wrote. “Suddenly, without conscious volition, but obeying a blind unreasoning impulse, I turned and plunged on a bee-line into the woods. ‘Eloise Butler,’ I said to myself, ‘what are you doing? You are due at home.’ But on I went and walked directly into a pocket lined with leatherwood in full blossom.”
Butler no doubt transplanted some in her wild garden of native plants. Growing up “roaming the woods” in rural Maine, she learned the names of plants as loggers buzzed through the forests.
After a stint in a one-room school in northern Indiana, she followed ads in 1874 seeking teachers in the booming mill town of Minneapolis. She spent 37 years teaching history and botany, mostly at South and Central high schools.
She’d often leave the microscope in the classroom for field trips to wetlands. The 1906 South High yearbook warned against taking botany from Butler “unless you enjoy 10-mile walks through bog and swamp” in quest of “unobtainable” flora.
Both of Butler’s parents had been teachers in Maine, and teaching was about her only option in the late 1800s. “At that time and place no other career than teaching was thought of for a studious girl,” she wrote, adding: “In my next incarnation, I shall not be a teacher.”
Her true passion was collecting plants, especially a kind of one-cell, microscopic algae called desmids in which she found “extraordinary beauty.” Studying with experts, she discovered a dozen new varieties — including one that was named after her, Cosmarium eloiseanum.
Her zealous plant hunting wasn’t limited to Minnesota or Maine. She boarded a banana boat to Jamaica in 1891, fighting strong waves in rubber hip boots to study seaweed specimens found on ledges and cliffs.
In 1907, Butler successfully petitioned the Minneapolis Park Board to set aside a “wild botanic garden,” as opposed to the manicured ones so popular at the time. Starting with 3 acres in what was then Glenwood Park, the garden began with two specimens Butler grew in a pitcher over the winter. She and her friends raided a White Bear Lake bog for large yellow lady-slippers and calla lilies, and brought in skunk cabbage and maidenhair ferns from below Minnehaha Falls.
Butler became the garden’s first curator in 1911 after retiring from teaching. The Minneapolis Park Board and Woman’s Club split paying her monthly salary of $50.
“From April through October, Butler could always be found in her wild garden, dressed in riding breeches and high laced boots,” Hellander wrote. She wore a badge to chase off vandals and youths hoping to use her garden as a make-out spot.
She chronicled dozens of bird sightings, from ruby-throated hummingbirds to barred owls. “A young grosbeak just out of the nest came directly to me in the swamp, and huddled under my skirt,” she wrote in June 1917.
The Minneapolis Park Board named the garden in Butler’s honor in 1929. Now 15 acres just north of Interstate 394 and off Theodore Wirth Parkway, the garden is free and open daily from 7:30 a.m. until an hour before dusk.
Butler spent nearly 60 years in Minnesota nature before suffering a heart attack on her way to the garden in 1933 and dying at the age of 81. Her ashes were spread near where the leatherwood shrub still grows.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.