As president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter Wyse Jackson is one of the world’s foremost botanists and conservationists. For three years now, he has been the steward of an institution that is recognized around the globe as a leader in plant research. On the grounds of the 79-acre Garden in South St. Louis, some of the planet’s most exotic plants species are cultivated, studied and ultimately preserved for the benefit of mankind.
Jackson is also a big fan of weeds. “I don’t call them weeds. I like plants that grow naturally. You may call them weeds, but I call them native plants.” I’m sort of taken aback with his defense of what many of us—including my neighbors with perfect lawns--would consider a nuisance. So you like dandelions? I ask incredulously. “Oh yes, dandelions are wonderful. They are one of the most useful plants you can imagine,” he says without hesitation. “You can take the flowers, dip them in batter and make delicious fritters. You can chop off the roots, roast them and make delicious coffee; you can eat the leaves in spring in salads; and you can boil the flowers and make wildflower honey. Dandelions also have a long history of being used for medicinal purposes. They are one of my favorite plants, and yet we look on them as a weed.”
I’m thinking that there has to be some great life analogy in his response, and I’m trying to figure out what it could be. Peter Wyse Jackson was born in Kilkenny, Ireland, the son of Robert Wyse Jackson, who was Bishop of Limerick and Dean of Cashel. At an early age, young Peter realized he looked at plants differently from the rest of us. “As a teenager, I was interested in plants and the natural environment, and it upset me when I didn’t know what they were called or what they were, so I set about trying to learn about them.”
Jackson learned a lot: He earned his Ph.D. in botany from Trinity College in Dublin, was named the curator of the school’s Botanic Garden, and then went on to become the secretary general of an international organization of botanic gardens before being appointed as the director of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland. In 2010, he came to St. Louis, saying, “It was the significance of the Missouri Botanical Garden as a world leader that brought me here.” He says he is always surprised with the diversity of St. Louis and likes to explore the antique stores and junk shops. He’s even been known to visit thrift shops, where he once found a 1904 World’s Fair trinket.
He admits moving to St. Louis from Ireland was an adjustment. “There are always challenges when moving to a new place, but with St. Louis, it may have been the other way around,” he jokes in his gentle, sophisticated Irish brogue. “Maybe I talk funny, but everyone was very welcoming.” One part of life here that he still finds perplexing is our sports. “I’m still struggling to understand the rules of American football, and indeed, baseball. I sit for hours watching the Cardinals on television, but I eventually ask, What’s happening?” As for our beers, his answer is about as diplomatic as an Irishman can be. “All of the St. Louis beers are great, but it isn’t Guinness, is it?”
In Jackson’s office, I notice there aren’t any plants and I wonder if it’s because he doesn’t have a green thumb. He tells me his houseplants survive only because of his wife. He adds he loves to garden but while he just doesn’t have the time it takes to do it properly, he believes anyone can have a green thumb. “If you get a tree, dig a hole and stick it in the ground, and don’t care for it and it dies, you can say it’s because you haven’t got a green thumb; when in fact, it’s all about taking the time to research and prepare.” In the big picture, that is exactly where Jackson’s expertise is most evident. With a light rain falling, the saturated colors of the Garden are literally dripping with absorbance. For 175 years, the stewards of this place have taken the time, preparation and research to make the Missouri Botanical Garden, our city and the world a greener place.
It all started with Henry Shaw and continues today with Jackson. Most of us native St. Louisans recognize the importance of ‘Shaw’s Garden,’ but eventually, too many of us take it for granted. We just don’t always see the world the same way people like Jackson do. “We raise the awareness of the people of St. Louis, the region, the nation and the world about the importance of plants in our future. Without plants, there would be no life on earth,” he declares, which brings me back to the way he looks at weeds.
“I look at plants, not just to admire their beauty, but I look at the stories they tell.” I think I may have just figured out that analogy. I should cultivate some dandelions—I hope the neighbors won’t mind.
A native St. Louisan, Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. His Paul Brown Media specializes in public and media relations.