Steve Wolff knows one thing he’ll miss most about the garden where he’s spent the last 50 years: the water lilies.
For decades he’s cared for the striking but finicky flower that blooms at night and is rooted underwater.
Wolff, a gentle, bespectacled 68-year-old, is often spotted in waders weaving around the glass art in the Missouri Botanical Garden pools.
He keeps the water lilies pristine, growing some lily pads as large as 5 feet across. He gets little pricks from thorns hidden underneath the smooth surface. And he sometimes answers questions about how deep the water is from curious kids who see his head sticking out of the pool by laughing and standing up from his knees.
Wolff has been a horticulturist at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis since 1968. He even lived in the garden with his family for several years. Their small house had a bell in the kitchen that would clang and wake him in the middle of the night when temperatures in the greenhouses spiked or dipped too low.
Wolff watched as the place transformed around him. When he was hired, only 10 of the institution’s 79 acres were laid out in gardens. Now little unused space remains. During his tenure the garden expanded, the staff grew from 65 to 421, and attendance quadrupled.
It’s now clearly one of the top botanical gardens in the world, he said.
April 9 marked Wolff’s 50th year at the garden, a landmark before he plans to retire.
On a recent morning, he contemplated leaving the place as he stuck his hands in the greenhouse pools, pulling out dead lily pads as he spotted them.
“Leaving is bittersweet,” he said. “I hope I can pass on some institutional knowledge so the young people behind me can remember the history. So they can love this place like I do.”
Wolff was hired as an intern in 1968 while on Easter break from Lutheran High School South. He was 17 and, finding a locked gate when he reported for duty his first day, panicked and hopped the wrought iron fence to make it to work.
Early on, he did a lot of pruning and odd jobs in the plant beds and the Climatron, which was a new attraction at the time. He spent as much time as possible in the garden, determined to learn.
After graduating from high school, Wolff took classes in horticulture at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, but working in the garden was his real education.