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James Gurney 1831-1920
by Kit Knotts with the assistance
of Walter Pagels
Born in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, England, October
12, 1831, James Gurney learned gardening from his father, and
as a young man received an appointment as a gardener at the Royal
Botanic Garden, Kew. He was in charge of the aquatics section.
The first Victoria at Kew was under his care and he was present
when Queen Victoria, accompanied by, among other royals, the
French president (later Napoleon III), went to view the first
flowering. "'Gardener,' the Queen said to James Gurney,
'tell me how you succeeded in producing this wonderful plant,'
- 'so I stepped forward,' explained Gurney; and when he told
of this, one of the greatest moments in a long, blessed and useful
life, his eyes would moisten." *
Gurney was appointed to a Royal Commission going to Africa
for botanical research. Circumstances prevented him from leaving
with the group which saved his life, as all of those who went
died. Perhaps this is why he decided to move to the United States,
at age 36, planning to settle in California. On the way there,
while staying in St. Louis, he heard that an epidemic was raging
on the west coast and elected to remain in St. Louis. He was
short of funds and needed employment. The proprietor of his hotel
suggested he see Henry Shaw, who was starting a garden outside
Shaw was a businessman who had found great success in St.
Louis. One of his many real estate acquisitions was a large tract
of land southwest of the city where he built a country home.
Shaw traveled widely and, in 1851, he visited the Royal Botanic
Gardens at Kew, the Crystal Palace and Chatsworth. He returned
home determined to create a garden on his property equal to Kew.
In 1859 he opened "Shaw's Garden" to the public. The
same year, he made a will that would create the Missouri Botanical
Garden as a charitable trust upon his death.
In 1867 Shaw hired Gurney as his head gardener. It turned
out they had been born only a few miles apart in England, possibly
contributing to their lifelong friendship. Gurney was instrumental
in major changes made to the Garden in subsequent years. He was
also responsible for the concepts and design of Shaw's other
gift to the city of St. Louis, Tower Grove Park. The Park was
first authorized by a state law passed in 1867, and came into
existence in 1868, when Shaw conveyed the land, approximately
300 acres, to the city.
Gurney's idea of a park was that it be walled in with green,
tall trees and shrubs, so that it would become a place of restfulness,
solace and spirituality, without external distractions. He personally
planted or helped to plant nearly every tree in Tower Grove Park,
though Henry Shaw was deeply involved. "'When we were planting
Tower Grove Park one day, Mr. Shaw paused in his work of planting
a tree and said, "Mr. Gurney, I shouldn't wonder if we're
not doing more good for humanity than half the ministers."'"
Gurney became the Park's Superintendent when Shaw died in
1889, all the while retaining his position with Missouri Botanical
Garden and its Shaw School of Botany until 1903 when he began
devoting full time to Tower Grove Park.
Aquatic plants, especially waterlilies, remained Gurney's
first love. He was instrumental in making waterlilies an important
feature of Tower Grove Park. He became well known as a specialist
in their cultivation and hybridization. Working almost exclusively
with tropical night bloomers, his earliest cultivar was N. 'Frank
Trelease', named for the son of then MBG Director William Trelease.
The next were N. 'Stella Gurney' (a day blooming "star"
lily named for his daughter-in-law), 'James Gurney, Junior',
'Rufus J. Lackland' and 'D.R. Frances'. A number of others were
later described by B.C. Berry in the Missouri Botanical Garden
Bulletin. These include N. 'B.C. Berry', 'C.E. Hutchings', 'Emily
Grant Hutchings', 'H.C. Haarstick', 'J.S. Walsh', and 'Tulipifera'.
Victoria was first grown in St. Louis by Gurney at MBG in
1894, in a special heated pool. The next and subsequent years
Victorias were also grown in a heated pool at Tower Grove Park
which had better lighting for evening display. Attendance increased
dramatically in those first years as residents flocked to see
the massive water platters.
"Back in the early 20th century, working
people were only free to go to the Park at night. This is why
James Gurney concentrated on developing night flowering waterlilies.
The Park was illuminated by bright arc lights atop tall poles."
-- Walter Pagels, personal communication, December, 2005.
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James Gurney, Jr. assumed the position of superintendent after
his father's death January 15, 1920. When Gurney, Jr. died in
1943, his daughter Bernice E. Gurney took on the position. Gurney
Avenue in St. Louis is named for the three generations of Gurneys.
Only two of Gurney's six children, James Jr. and George, survived
Gurney Sr. was proud to say that he had only had two employers
in his life, the Queen of England and Henry Shaw. He often reminded
people that he was a gardener and not a botanist, but he was
certainly a down-to-earth philosopher. Selected Gurney quotes:
The man, woman or child who plants and grows a tree
does much good for mankind.
The world would be a dull place were it not filled with flowers,
music and laughter.
Plants growing in the wrong beds are nothing but weeds.
Roses are like young ladies; they are sweet but very fastidious.
Some plants get their backs up and refuse to grow, blossom
or bear fruit unless certain conditions are to their liking.
How like man!
Flowers and trees preach grander, deeper and more eloquent
sermons than all the ministers.
It was the lilies that taught me to understand my Bible better.
Plants, like children, are sometimes very disobedient and
Flowers and trees talk. Blessed is he who listens and heeds
what they say.
Treat thy plants, boys, as thee would treat thyself.
My longevity and good health are due to my having lived close
to the heart of nature.
On Gurney's death, a former student of his at MBG, Professor
A.T. Erwin, was quoted in the Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin:
"The job of head gardener often included about everything
- timekeeper, label-writer, foreman, and what not. Careful, methodical,
always on the job, courteous, and even-tempered even under trying
conditions, the work of Mr. Gurney deserves an important place
in the early-day history of the Garden and Tower Grove Park,
and the Garden pupils of his day remember his labors in their
behalf with reverence and appreciation."
* Bay, Jay Christian. In The House of Memories,
1946, p. 23
** ----- "A Life's Work Completed". St. Louis Globe-Democrat,
December 17, 1916
of James Gurney and Family
Bay, Jay Christian. In The House of Memories,
1946, p. 23
Berry, B.C. "Nocturnal Hybrid Water-lilies of the Late James
Gurney". Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin, 10(9), November
1922, p. 147-150.
Pagels, Walter. Personal communication, December, 2005.
----- "A Life's Work Completed". St. Louis Globe-Democrat,
December 17, 1916.
----- "James Gurney". Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin,
8 (2): 28.
----- "James Gurney Dead at 88
". St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
January 16, 1920.
N. 'Emily Grant
----- "Memorial Proposed for James Gurney,
St Louis Parkmaker". St. Louis Globe-Democrat, February
----- "Success Crowns Life Work of St. Louis Gardener".
St. Louis Star, July 31, 1910.
Garden Web Site
Tower Grove Park Web Site
St. Louis Public Library Street Index
William Trelease Papers 1868-1945
N. 'H.C. Haarstick'