Secrets of the East Side: Full Circle Healing Garden

Not far from the beautiful grove of Forest Park Magnolia trees we focused on in a previous blog post in this series, you can find the Full Circle Healing Garden.

The Full Circle Healing Garden, established in 2001, is a 17,000-square-foot natural area located just east of the Steinberg Skating Rink parking lot. But this is no ordinary garden. Formerly turfgrass, this area is now truer to its roots with around 25 species of plants native to Missouri. The idea for the Healing Garden originated with Gary Skolnick, a Senior Statistical Data Analyst at Washington University School of Medicine, who was inspired by the vibrancy of places like the Savanna in Kennedy Forest (on the west side of Forest Park). 

In Gary's own words: “I was walking on the western side of Forest Park near Kennedy Forest and sat down for a break. For the first time I noticed the marvelous diversity of strange tall grasses and flowers.” 

After learning more about the diversity of ecosystems that had at one time covered the topography of Missouri, Gary acquired a bitter taste in his mouth for turfgrass.

And so it began. Gary approached the Park's caretakers, and a group of volunteers, supporters and staff created a unique place where visitors, including those coming from Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children's Hospital just across Kingshighway, can rejuvenate themselves in a natural environment. This garden embraces the healing properties of nature and includes plants that were traditionally used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. It also represents a reintroduction of a bit of prairie into a space where it had been lost. It was for these reasons the area was named the Full Circle Healing Garden.

Years later, we are still enjoying this restorative prairie. With meandering paths throughout the garden and plants reaching up to 10 feet tall, it is easy to get lost among the many colors and aromas. Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) will be one of the first noticeable perennials to bloom in late spring and its inviting aroma can be detected without even setting foot in the garden. 

Maintaining the Healing Garden is similar to the maintenance of any other natural area, minus the prescribed burns. The whole garden is mowed to the ground each year and the plants emerge again with all of the same vigor as the prior year. Japanese bush honeysuckle continues to try to make its way into the garden, so this invasive species also has to be kept in check. 

This is not only a space for people but also a habitat for wildlife such as of bees, butterflies, beetles, flies, moths, wasps, as well as birds and mammals. With so many food sources, nesting materials and shelter, these kinds of wildlife find everything they need here. 

Have you heard about Milkweeds for Monarchs: The St. Louis Butterfly Project? We are proud to say that there are two different species of milkweeds for the monarch caterpillar to eat in the Healing Garden, as well as some late fall-blooming perennials that are a good nectar source for the adult monarch butterfly as it gets ready to head south. If you visit in the fall you can see quite a lot of them sunning themselves on flowers!

This truly is a tranquil space to enjoy walks across seasons — it is worth visiting in the spring, summer and fall just to see it evolve. We encourage you to take some time out for a calming stroll through the Full Circle Healing Garden and be restored to a better state of being.

Editor's Note: This blog series is penned by Forest Park Forever Gardener Susan Van de Riet and Horticulturist Mark Halpin, who together maintain 123 acres on the east side of Forest Park. To learn more about Susan, Mark and the rest of our talented Land Management team, please click here.