To stimulate interest in horticulture and floral design and provide an outlet for creative expression, the Peoria Garden Club is hosting its biannual Standard Flower Show June 5. This year’s event, “Small Wonders,” takes place at Pettengill-Morron House Museum and is co-sponsored by the Peoria Historical Society.

This happy combination of nature, art, and history recalls charming Victorian past times—its central theme—but also prompts thoughts of some of the Peoria area’s earliest botanists.

Drs. Frederick Brendel and James T. Stewart, contemporaries here in the latter half of the 19th century, were physicians and pioneer ecologists, exploring the relationships between living nature and environment. Born in Erlangen, Bavaria, on January 20, 1820, and educated there, Brendel came to the United States in 1850, and arrived in Peoria February 11, 1852. He was 92 when he died here in 1912.

Born in 1824 in Bond County, Stewart spent his early life in Hennepin. A graduate of Knox College, he earned his medical degree from the Philadelphia College of Medicine. He began practicing medicine here in 1850 and was 77 when he died in 1901.

Brendel’s legacy includes “Flora Peoriana,” an 89-page booklet published in Peoria in 1887. Subtitled “The Vegetation in the Climate of Middle Illinois,” it draws upon his meticulous observations of both climate and plant life here from 1855 through 1885. As Virginius H. Chase, another pioneering Peoria naturalist, wrote in a 1931 article for the Illinois State Academy of Science, “Flora Peoriana” is no mere checklist.

Even today Brendel’s observation that “the mercury is falling below freezing point in a period commencing on the 1st of October and ending on the 11th of May” provides a useful guide for local gardeners.

Brendel chronicled changes within his time here, including the disappearance of various species and the appearance and proliferation of what he called “immigrated plants.” “The species which immigrated partly from Europe, partly from tropical countries, are either fully naturalized and form an integral part of our present flora, or they are adventives, i.e. new comers, mostly escaped from cultivated land or gardens, that may afterwards become naturalized, after a more or less prolific propagation, or become extinct again, when the chances are less favorable,” he said.

He also noted prairies yielded to woods, a change still seen as fields become landscaped subdivisions.

Brendel corresponded with practically every American scientist of the 19th century, according to Chase, including Harvard botanist Asa Gray and Henry Shaw, whose St. Louis garden is still visited today. The Smithsonian published articles by Brendel.

In 1875, both Brendel and Stewart were active in founding the Peoria Scientific Association. Specimens and collections were displayed in the county courthouse, and a curator explained exhibits to the hundreds of persons who visited each year. In its first 10 years, the association provided the forum for 167 scientific papers and developed a museum with more than 10,000 specimens and a library of 150 volumes. In its 10th year, some 7,700 visitors inspected the collections, according to a report by Stewart and referenced by Chase. 

In the 1870s Stewart and three others, including Otto Triebel, founded what became the Penstemon Cosmopolitan Club. At first the society was both small and select, according to Theo. R. Marsters’ 1918 article in Peoria’s Sunday Journal and Transcript. It was a group of male nature lovers who set the first Sunday in May for the date of their one annual meeting. Under the pretense of doing honor to the penstemon flower, they gathered in Oesterle’s woods (later the site of the Guardian Angel orphanage) “to commune with nature and indulge in an informal exchange of ideas regarding the eternal verities.” The club became the rage, Marsters wrote, including all the richest men in town. It flourished for some 45 years. In 1921 the club’s official records were laid to rest at the Peoria library.

Stewart also supported the Peoria Art League “during its long lean years of early struggle,” according to Marster.

At Stewart’s death, his herbarium of more than 3,000 specimens of local flora became the property of the Field Museum. Much of Brendel’s collection went to the University of Illinois.

As we work towards a new museum of art, history, science, and technology, we do well to remember these pioneering benchmarks. Enjoy the Garden Club Show in the freshly refurbished historical house at 1212 W. Moss, open to the public from 2 to 8 p.m. Admission is $5. AA!