If ever there was a good time to celebrate Tree Week in St. Louis, it was Oct. 29 to Nov. 4, when our Missouri Botanical Garden set aside special days for tours and talks about its 4,600 trees. I think it’s safe to say that we mostly take trees for granted. But spending a couple of hours devoted just to them—not showy bushes or flowers— was a great way to increase appreciation for them. Tree walk groups departed from the visitor’s center to all corners of the grounds, with teachable moments at every turn. The colors were spectacular, but the walks went beyond a vivid show of fall to teach us that trees have fascinating histories too.

For example, the delicate ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), the only remaining species of its kind, is quite ancient and once proliferated across North America and Europe. It is now native only to China and was at one point thought to be extinct like its cousins. Lucky for us, in the 17th century, a German botanist spotted it in China and brought it back to the west. One specimen at the garden was planted during founder Henry Shaw’s lifetime, in 1884.

Then there’s the sweet gum tree, native to Missouri. The leaves turn a magnificent rainbow of colors, from yellow to red and purple, earning the tree its nickname, ‘liquid amber.’ And did you know that Missouri is home to 24 native oak species? Or that the difference between white and red oak varieties is rounded versus pointed leaf lobes? How about that each sassafras tree has three types of leaves—some with three lobes, some with two and some that are simply pointed like elm leaves? Or that the tulip poplar is not really a poplar?

Interestingly, grand old trees can earn honorifics, too, like the garden’s National Champion white basswood. Sitting near the Shaw townhome (moved to this site after his death, as dictated in his will), this tree earned its designation by being the largest known individual of its species, in branch spread and height. There’s a State Champion tree, too—a possumhaw deciduous holly.

Even if the history of trees doesn’t excite you, there are a couple of obscure garden spots that probably will. Like The Stumpery, a kind of sculpture garden behind Shaw’s home that was created from tree trunks uprooted at Shaw Nature Reserve. They were artistically placed around a backwoods part of the garden, roots pointing up and out like botanical antlers. Then there are the bald cypress trees’ ‘knees,’ which can be seen sticking up in the Japanese Garden. There’s also a maple tree planted by Emperor Akihito in 1994, when he visited the garden. (He reportedly was very impressed by it.)