The Ozarks area is one of Missouri’s top geographic regions known for its forests thick with towering white oaks and pines. The town of Springfield, Missouri, forms the western border of the Ozarks and is the gateway to an outdoor wonderland shaped by hills and valleys, subterranean caves to explore, sparkling springs, and clear running rivers to enjoy on a warm summer’s day, and lovely gardens.
Long before Springfield was first settled in 1818 it was home to several Native American tribes and a place of history for countless events that followed. The Trail of Tears went through town. Important battles of the Civil War were fought here. Wild West gunmen made history with shootouts. The famed Route 66 went through town and still traverses the city. And one young fisherman, Johnny Morris, founded Bass Pro shops.
In 1972, Johnny Morris added fishing tackle to a small eight-square-foot section in the back of his father’s liquor store in Springfield. Fast forward 50 years later (2022 is the 50th anniversary) and Bass Pro has become a top retailer of outdoor sporting gear in the U.S.
Already an angler on the professional bass fishing circuit by the age of 21 when he started selling fishing tackle, Johnny’s love of the outdoors and the conservation of its resources have been the driving force behind the success of the company. The nearly 500,000 square-foot flagship store in Springfield brings people from around the world for an immersive experience that includes retail, a wildlife museum, and an aquarium.
While the retail selections are extensive (so plan to spend time here), those who love the outdoors will turn their attention to the Wonders of Wildlife Museum inside the Bass Pro complex. A 1.5-mile indoor trail winds past 4D dioramas, wildlife exhibits, galleries filled with western art, a recreation of President Teddy Roosevelt’s cabin, and national museums of bass fishing, fly fishing, and a heads and horns collection. There is also a small display of Nascar cars sponsored by Bass Pro over the years, plus a replica of Johnny’s fishing tackle section in his dad’s store.
The Aquarium Adventure at Bass Pro, voted America’s best aquarium several years running, features 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and even penguins. Hands-on aquatic experiences include a tank with stingrays that kids and adults enjoy touching as these interesting fish swim by.
Springfield is also a town of lovely parks and manicured gardens. The Springfield Botanical Gardens at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park is a local treasure and features dozens of themed gardens and botanical collections with something to see every month of the year.
The Master Gardener Demonstration Garden is designed with the home gardener in mind. From the entrance lined with an apple espalier to garden beds filled with herbs and veggies, native plants, ornamental grasses, shrubs, and perennials, the plants offer ideas for your own garden.
The lavender trial fields include English and French varieties of the fragrant plant. In springtime, the garden is rimmed by spring bulbs followed by annuals planted for summer and fall.
The 7.5-acre Mizumoto Japanese Stroll Garden in the park is a tribute to Springfield’s sister city Isesaki, Japan.
The easy walk through this traditional Japanese garden features a meditation sand garden with a stately Japanese black pine, a tea house, a moon bridge and a zig-zag bridge, and a koi-filled pond. Some 80 Japanese maples dot the landscape along with Yoshino cherry, weeping white pine, Chinese chestnut, ginkgo, and Japanese umbrella pine. The wisteria island is a beautiful sight to see in spring.
In April, there is a Cherry Blossom kite festival. The Japanese Fall Festival in September showcases the change of the season. Gardens Aglow illuminates the garden in November and December. Pick up a map at the entrance for details since there is no signage in a traditional Japanese garden. The purpose is to relax and reflect.
There are two national display gardens in the park. The National Daylily Display Garden has more than 800 varieties in a range of colors and patterns along with a large stand of peonies surrounding these. The hosta garden is recognized as one of only 18 national display gardens of the American Hosta Society. Sited in a shady walnut grove – hostas are one of the few plants that can grow under walnut trees – pathways wind past more than 300 varieties of hostas in all sizes and shades of green.
The Butterfly House showcases 30 native species of butterflies and moths with a mix of host and nectar plants so you can follow the life cycle of these important pollinators. The Butterfly Festival in June is a family fun event.
Other popular gardens in the park include the rose garden with 200 roses, a white garden, an ornamental grass garden, an English garden, a wildflower garden, and a dwarf conifer collection. Mostly paved paths wind through the park and for those with children, five botanical-themed play pods are a welcome stop along the way. Make sure to stop in the botanical center for the gift shop and any classes offered during your visit.
Closer to downtown near Missouri State University, the Water Wise Garden maintained by the Master Gardeners is a small but interesting garden laid out in water zones of xeric, wet, and normal. Plants in each zone showcase what can grow in these water conditions. Paths wind through the space filled with a variety of flowers, shrubs, and mature crabapple trees. There is also a monarch waystation with milkweed plants. The gazebo in the middle makes for a nice place to sit and enjoy this space.
The Springfield Community Gardens is a model program for providing produce in food-insecure neighborhoods, and for training adults and students alike on how to grow fresh produce. The 17 community gardens and three farms are placed throughout the metro area, offering opportunities for growing, training, workdays, and garden space allotments for residents.
Amanda Belle’s Farm across from the local hospital offers nutrition training for patients and provides the salad bar produce for the cafeteria. Two 30 by 90-foot long high tunnels are filled with tomatoes, lettuce, kale, and other colorfull selections.
The Midtown School Garden is a partnership with local schools and is one of the first and longest-running community gardens of the organization. Hedges of blackberries and raspberries line the fence enclosing the garden. Inside are apple trees, grapevines, heirloom vegetables, and a high tunnel for those who want to rent growing space. All of the community gardens are open to visit and offer events ranging from seed starting to cooking.
On the south edge of town, the Springfield Conservation Nature Center has three miles of trails across terrain that includes a forest, creek, lake, glade, marsh, and a spring. The nature center houses interesting displays with interactive and live exhibits focusing on the Ozark region and a schedule of classes from native plants to outdoor skills.
Twenty minutes south of downtown Springfield in the town of Ozark is the latest development by Johnny Morris – Finley Farms and the Ozark Mill. His vision has transformed the historic buildings on the property into gathering, event, and dining facilities.
The former 1930s-era industrial garage has been transformed into The Workshop – a coffee shop by day and a makers workshop by night. The raised garden beds behind the building offer harvest for the many programs given in the makers’ space. The farm’s website lists the classes. A farmer’s market is held on Thursday nights from mid-May through the end of September.
Close by, the historic Ozark Mill is nestled along the banks of the Finley River. Originally, built in the early1800s, the mill was an important business in the local Ozark community. Over the years, fires and floods claimed the property. When Johnny Morris purchased the current structure, a team of engineers and construction workers worked together to lift the building off its foundation, reposition it, and add flood gates to protect it from rising waters. Today, the mill looks as authentic as the day it was a working mill, minus the grain dust.
Inside is the farm-to-table Ozark Mill Restaurant offering beautiful views of the river and mill pond and dining using fresh ingredients sourced from the Finley Farms gardens. A new lower-level speakeasy environment opens this summer. Future plans include historic mill tours and outdoor activities. A walking path connects to The Workshop and also goes over the historic bridge to the island.
If you are a gardener who grows plants from seed, then you no doubt have heard of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed company.
Located in Mansfield, Missouri, a 50-minute drive east of Springfield, Baker Creek has a loyal following of gardeners who ooh and aah as they browse through the company’s legendary seed catalog. The company headquarters is a horticultural destination for gardeners.
Sited on an historic homestead, other buildings have been built here to create an old-time village. The massive Tile Garden in front of the seed store has 92 garden beds planted with colorful bulbs in spring and then changed out to a seasonal display as the months progress.
Inside the store are thousands of seed packets for purchase, ranging from tomato, squash, and pepper heirloom varieties to sunflowers (very popular right now), poppies and echinacea, and every plant in between. The company’s mission is to retain the seed diversity of heirlooms, so Baker Creek sells only non-GMO seeds that are not F1 hybrids or patented. Check the company website for updates and a list of events.
When You Go
Missouri is known as the “Cave State” with over 7,300 documented caves. While there are about a dozen caves accessible to the public in the state, Fantastic Caverns is the only drive-through cave in the U.S. Jeep-drawn trams take you deep into the cave where you can experience the amazing geological formations and hear the stillness of being underground in this most amazing space.
The Hotel Vandivort offers luxury in the heart of downtown Springfield. Originally built in 1906 as a Masonic Temple, the four-story hotel has 98 rooms spread across two buildings. The lobby area is a popular gathering place, while the rooftop bar offers panoramic views of the city. The Order restaurant features a seasonally sourced menu.
Springfield-style cashew chicken got its start at Leong’s Tea House, a fine dining restaurant in 1960s Springfield. Created as a blend of Asian-inspired cashew chicken with an Ozark spin – think fried chicken and country gravy – the dish developed a loyal following that made the Leong family restaurant an icon of the city. While there are several restaurants that serve this local specialty, the family now operates Leong’s Asian Diner where it continues serving their culinary creation.
Springfield offers many types of dining choices from Peruvian food at Cafe Cusco, Mediterranean at the Greek Belly, and country cooking at Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe. Save room for chocolate tasting and buying at Askinosie Chocolate, a small-batch chocolate maker.
For more information on Springfield, visit www.springfieldmo.org.
Featured image – Daylily Display Garden / Nathanael Green-Close Memorial Park
Beverly Hurley is the editor of Triangle Gardener magazine in North Carolina. When she is not gardening, she loves to travel.