MISSOULA – At a university deeply rooted in tradition, one garden has grabbed the attention of students, educators and visitors for 50 years: the Montana Native Botanic Garden at the University of Montana.

“We’re one of the first native gardens in the West and maybe the first,” said Kelly Chadwick, University Center gardens manager and native plant garden volunteer. “It was ahead of its time.”

Klaus Lackschewitz – UM botanist and horticulturist Klaus Lackschewitz, works in the garden in 1969. (Photo:Mansfield Library Archives & Special Collections.)

During a decade when expansive lawns of Kentucky bluegrass dominated landscaping, UM botanist and horticulturist Klaus Lackschewitz and botany chair Sherman Preece envisioned a different environment for their students: a garden with only native species to serve as a hands-on teaching tool.

In 1967, the two started planting the gardens that surround UM’s Natural Sciences annex and greenhouse with the vision of representing all of Montana and its various ecosystems. Today, several dedicated volunteer gardeners maintain that original vision.

“If you look at Montana, I mean, it’s diverse in its landscape,” volunteer coordinator Alice Okon said. “You’ve got plains, you’ve got mountains, you have prairies. You’ve got wetlands. All of that is represented with our interpretation of it at this garden.”

After Lackschewitz retired from UM in 1976, non-native species crept into the flowerbeds and began to take over. It wasn’t until 1989 that members of the Clark Fork Chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society decided to rescue the garden.

Longtime volunteer gardener Lois Puckett admires the wet meadow section of the Montana Native Botanic Garden, which used to be under her care. (UM Photo)

Two women who had spent time with Lackschewitz gathering native species from the alpines areas across Montana – Jean Parker and Jean Pfeiffer – led the effort. The spent their Wednesdays at the garden, a day that continues to be a preferred gardening day among the loyal volunteers.

Lackschewitz’ neighbor, Chinwon Reinhardt, who also has fond memories of learning about plants from the botanist, has spent decades at the garden.

“I was recruited,” Reinhardt said, “and I was a willing recruit. I wasn’t a good recruit,” she added with a laugh.

“They all being friends and respecting him so much, cared about the garden and had that same interest and love and I think that’s created the heart of this garden,” Chadwick said.

Today, more than 23 gardeners ensure over 300 species of native flora blossom and thrive in the areas designated as their habitat.

“Even before I was involved, I always admired these gardens and was interested in them,” Chadwick said, “and then I met the people. The volunteers are such intelligent, reliable, caring and interesting people. So the people have locked me in.”

Peter Stickney, a retired U.S. Forest Service ecologist, still devotes time to keeping weeds out of the bunchgrass prairie section of the garden. (UM Photo)

In addition to Chadwick, Okon and Reinhardt, the list of longest serving volunteers includes Pfeiffer; Peter Stickney, a retired U.S. Forest Service postfire forest succession research ecologist; Lois Puckett, a volunteer since 1991; and Sheila Morrison, author of “The Magic of Montana Native Plants: A Gardeners Guide to Growing over 150 Species from Seed.”

“It’s really fun,” Morrison said. “The best people I know are my plant people.”

While volunteers have joined in the past decade, Chadwick said she hopes the next half-century brings new energy to the garden.

“Our group is aging,” Chadwick said. “I was the kid, and I’m not the kid anymore. We would love to bring in younger people who could develop a passion by learning from these amazing mentors who have knowledge that no one has.”

The Native Plant Society is exploring new projects and ways to increase the educational opportunities that the garden provides.