We arrived at Powell Gardens in Kingsville, Missouri, on a typically hot and humid Midwestern summer day. I had read that there are 915 acres of gardens here: I imagined this massive rolling landscape would be a perfect spot for playing a game of hide-n-seek. But even though the gardens looked family friendly, I did not expect a nationally recognized botanical garden to have huge yellow, red and blue Lego® blocks decorating its front entrance.
In the visitors’ center, we stopped to get our bearings before walking into the square conservatory. A Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobillis) touched the glass ceiling and, below, had been under-planted with orchids. A garden worker had just finished watering the potted fuchsias sitting on the tiers of a wooden chandelier hanging above a small pond. The showy pendulous red and purple flowers drained beads of water into the pool below.
“Do you see it, I found it first?” I squealed. If I had had a scorecard like the kids got at the front door, I would have marked it as my find. I had spied a group of moth orchids (Phalaenopsis sp.) across the pool among palms and ferns. One pink and white moth orchid planted in a white pot was alone: all of it made from Legos.
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- You want to visit public gardens with national prominence.
- You like very big botanical gardens with enough to entertain you for an entire day.
- You want to learn what grows in the region that borders Missouri and Kansas.
- This public garden has plant interests and activities for individuals and families of all ages.
Legos Imitate Garden Life
I sat on stone edging where behind me a butterfly lit on a red zinnia and yellow and red lilies grew. Across the way was a young magnolia tree (Magnolia ‘Blazing Beauty’) edged by a swath of short ornamental grass with its silky blond threads rippling in the wind. Powell Gardens tests magnolias; its collection of 300 varieties includes the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), a species of tree a northern gardener cannot grow but always covets.
My family found goldfinches fluttering around a tubular bird feeder, which was hung from an iron Sheppard’s hook. Nearby, a huge tiger swallowtail butterfly is posed ready to sip nectar. Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii ‘Black Knight’) and gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia ‘Tiger Eye Gold’) planted in the neighboring beds demonstrate which flowers attract beneficial birds and insects.
The yellow and black birds, grainy-colored bird food and the giant-sized hovering butterfly were made of Legos: even the birdseed was represented by tiny tan-colored Lego® pieces.
Sean Kenny, the Lego® Artist, created 14 displays by building 27 sculptures with the popular plastic building blocks for the summer games at Powell Gardens. Legos, a toy so familiar to children and adults alike, were used to imitate garden life. Visitors filled their scorecards with garden images ranging from the complicated life-size garden worker with a hoe in his hand to a simple single red rose.
Splashing in Water in a Botanical Garden
I was surprised a little girl was inching herself into the center of the fountain, much less that her grandmother and dad stood by encouraging her. The brown-haired child was braver than I, as I tip-toed forward and back to the rhythm of water surging up and down. I struck up a conversation with her grandmother: two gray-haired women with happy feet in the cool water on a hot summer day. Called the Fountain Garden, it is large flat fountain surrounded by limestone ledges and a mixture of shrubs and perennials planted in deep garden troughs.
Beyond the east terrace wall, more water is found at the Island Garden. The 200 water plants in the wetlands act as water filters and sponges. A koi fish is caught in mid-stride jumping out of the water while green platters float within range. The Lego® artist has struck again with his depiction of life in a pond.
The prairie portion near the Island Garden includes grasses and wild flowers, which are called forbs. The more natural grounds give the area wildlife a low maintenance habitat in which to thrive.
Kitchen Garden Landscape
In 1948, George Powell, Sr. owned the land: in succession, it was a dairy farm, a Boy Scout camp and a center for agricultural study. In 1988, the land became a botanical garden and is planted with about 6,000 varieties of plants.
The Heartland Harvest Garden was designed to reflect a French country kitchen garden and is set on 12 acres: billed as the United States’ largest edible landscape. The demonstration gardens are planted with apple and grape varieties, a vine yard of native and European grapes, and parterres of vegetable, more fruiting plants and herbs.
Climbing up to the observation deck attached to the Missouri barn’s silo is rewarded with a grand scene. The buffalo and her calf is standing out in the field with a tiny bird sitting on the wooly mammal’s coat and a hidden red fox is following a gray and white rabbit made of Legos.
From the stone terrace outside the conservatory, a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans ‘Red Sunset’) and a planter of orange cuphea and red coleus grab my attention. Nature’s perfect balance of flower form and a pollinator’s tool intersecting are depicted with Legos in an enormous hummingbird tipping his beak into a tubular flower. I’m alone, I found it.
A smirk covers my face as I go by a family: the youngest boy is talking to his mom as he dangles a scorecard in front of her, “I saw the goldfinches first, right? I get the credit, I get the credit.” An older boy and a girl, each donning headphones, trailed behind, seemingly lost in their own kind of play at Powell Gardens.
- Powell Gardens has free parking and space for large recreational vehicles but overnight parking is not allowed.
- The gardens are crisscrossed with wide cement sidewalks and benches for resting. Trolley service is available on the grounds, too.
- There are few highway signs along rural US Highway 50 directing traffic to Powell Gardens. Using a navigation system can be a confidence builder if you are unfamiliar with the local countryside.
- Take along an extra change of clothes and towels for anyone who might want to play in the fountain.