W. J. Beal Botanical Garden – East Lansing, Michigan - Atlas Obscura

W. J. Beal Botanical Garden

The plants form a living library and laboratory for researchers and students at Michigan State University. 


Originally founded in 1855 as an agricultural college, Michigan State University was, in its early decades, focused on the scientific study of plants and their benefits to humanity. To enhance the school’s botany classes, Professor William James Beal established an arboretum of clovers and forage grasses in 1873 in a small creekside valley on campus nicknamed “Sleepy Hollow.” Over the next few years, the garden’s collections grew far beyond this humble beginning into a large and extensive outdoor catalog of living plants.  

Today, the garden’s plants are arranged in neat, carefully maintained beds categorized by the ways they are used by humans, such as plants used for fibers, dyes, honey, medicines, and more. There is even a small bed showcasing common weeds. 

The sloping hills surrounding the botanical gardens are planted with floral communities from different regions of Michigan, along with ecosystems from North America, Asia, and Europe found at the same latitude as the state. 

Each plant in the garden is meticulously labeled with its common and scientific names along with information about its ecology and usefulness to humans.

Though Michigan State’s educational scope has expanded far beyond botany and agriculture, the W. J. Beal Gardens remain an important resource for students and researchers on campus and have been used in studies in the fields of botany, forestry, agriculture, pharmacology, veterinary medicine, and others.

Know Before You Go

The W J Beal Gardens are located in the center of the Michigan State Campus. They are free and open to the public. Biking, frisbees, and other sports are prohibited in the gardens. Dogs are allowed as long as they are on a leash and the owners pick up after them.

To get to the gardens, park in one of the many parking spots along West Circle Drive and walk toward the library. The original “Sleepy Hollow” garden lies on the other side of West Circle Drive from the main botanical gardens, next to the College of Music. It is now an open lawn in a small gully framed by decorative stands of trees, ferns, and shrubs.

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