How does your garden grow?

with garden spade/and shaving cream/one man saved his teacher's dream

What do shaving cream and wildflowers have in common?

Clinton Odell.

A teenager at the turn of the 20th century, Odell attended Minneapolis Central High. His botany teacher, Eloise Butler, would take her students to Glenwood Park (now Wirth Park) and give them hands-on lessons and collect plants.

Butler would go on to help establish a wild botanical garden in the park in 1907, a place later renamed in her honor.

Odell would go on to found the Burma-Vita Company, the maker of Burma Shave, best known for its highway billboard jingles. ("The whale/ Put Jonah/ Down the hatch/ But coughed him up/ Because he scratched/ Burma Shave.")

While the business prospered, Odell never lost his love for botany.

Burma Shave had its headquarters in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood, not far from the wildflower garden. According to one history, Odell often took lunchtime walks through the garden, "where he sought refuge from his business concerns."

Events would lead him in 1952 to create the Friends of the Wildflower Garden, a non-profit group that has provided money and volunteers to sustain the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, one of the gems in the Minneapolis parks system.

The Friends is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It is holding a special Mother's Day Open House May 12 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Odell's interest in the garden rekindled in the 1930s after Butler had died. Butler's assistant, Martha Crone, had taken over as curator.

Odell found Crone "overwhelmed with the work of caring for the large garden without assistance and the garden overrun with jewelweed, which, he felt, had destroyed many of Butler's plantings," wrote Martha Hellander, author of "The Wild Gardener: The Life and Selected Writings of Eloise Butler."

"Determined to help save the garden, Odell worked alongside Crone, removing jewelweed and nettles and maintaining the trails."

Odell worked in the garden, dressed in his suit and tie. In 1944, he spent $3,000 to purchase what is now the upland area of the garden, donating it to the Park Board.

A 1949 article in the Christian Science Monitor said he hired two "sturdy men" to help Crone, added a fence "to preserve the flowers from picnickers" and helped install a watering and drainage system.

Later, he formed the Friends of the Wildflower Garden.

"Odell thought there should always be a group of people committed to the vision of this garden as a natural area -- not an ornamental garden but a place that was intentionally left in a wild state," said current Friends president Steve Pundt of Bryn Mawr.

Odell worried the Park Board might lose interest in the wildflower garden or cut its funding in lean times, and an organized citizens group would help protect it, Pundt said.

The Friends paid for the Martha Crone shelter -- the cabin-like visitor's center in the garden -- in 1970. It has paid for the decorative gate and other amenities. Its volunteers staff the Martha Crone shelter.

The organization now has about 250 members and is trying to raise $15,000 for its anniversary fund, intended to replace the cyclone fence along the back of the garden with a more visually pleasing wrought iron fence, Pundt said. But the Friends have no other big plans.

"It is an interesting balance," he said. "As our gardener keeps reminding us, we don't necessarily need more stuff. We don't need more benches, more drinking fountains, more organized beds of plants -- because that is not what this experience is about.

"The experience of visiting the Eloise Butler garden is to replicate a walk in the woods."

Four gardeners span 95 years On a recent spring day -- as the snow trillium and skunk cabbage are popping up -- gardener Cary George walked through the garden near Mallard Pond with his loppers and a spray bottle of Round Up, a herbicide.

While Crone and Odell battled jewelweed, George's nemeses are buckthorn and garlic mustard, invasive species that crowd out native plants. When he took over the job in 1987, visitors could not see Mallard Pond from the trail, the buckthorn was so thick, George said.

"You never get them all; it's job security," he said.

George is only the fourth gardener the garden has had since it was established in 1907.

Butler held the job from 1907 to 1933; next came Crone (1933-1954), Ken Avery (1954-1987) and George.

George paused to point out a fox run and talk about how the garden has evolved. A cyclone took out a tamarack grove in the 1920s, he said, then elms took over -- until getting wiped out in the 1970s by Dutch Elm disease. The garden is on its way to becoming an oak forest again -- just like when Butler walked the woods.

This year, he said, he will replant hundreds of wildflowers: prairie cup, lead plants and rare asters. But he is not a gardener in a traditional sense. The job is part gardener, part environmentalist, part security guard and part maintenance guy.

He watches people as they come and go, he said. Some are lovers on a walk. Others come to bird watch or to exercise after bypass surgery.

"People come for solitude and healing," he said. "I have seen people sorting out their divorces here."

He calls it "a dream job." His wife works in the schools, he said.

"She will say, 'How was your day?'" George said. "I'll say, 'I saw a garter snake,' or 'The snow trillium bloomed today.'

"I'm not going to die from the stress."

Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

Established: 1907. It is the oldest public wildflower garden in the nation.

Size: 15 acres fenced, woodland, prairie and a wetland bog, including two-thirds mile of trails.

Hours: April 15-October 15, from 7:30 a.m. to a half-hour before sunset. Naturalists are on duty Monday through Friday, 3:30 p.m. to dusk, Saturday 10 a.m. to dusk and Sunday noon to sunset.

Peak display: Bloodroot, wild ginger, trilliums, marsh marigolds and other spring ephemerals bloom in April and May; lady slippers, irises and turtleheads bloom in the wetlands in June and July; prairie plants like asters, black-eyed Susans, blazing star and golden rod bloom mid to late-summer.

Directions: Take I-394 to Penn Avenue and follow the south frontage road (Wayzata Boulevard) west to Wirth Parkway, turning north on the Parkway and continuing one-half mile.

Phone: 370-4903 (Martha Crone shelter).