It was no accident that the Garden had one of the world’s finest orchid collections. From the beginning, the collection and classification of plant species was one of the most important aspects of the Garden’s scientific research. Scientists from the Garden did research all over America including the desert southwest. Dr. William Trelease accompanied the famous Harriman expedition to Alaska along with other notable naturalists such as John Muir.
Early in the 20th century, the Garden began sending its research into tropical climes, seeking to catalogue the diverse species in these rich environments. Garden horticulturist, George Pring, made trips to remote locations in Mexico and the Panama Canal Zone. On these trips, the scientist traveled by horse or donkey and often had to live in the most primitive of conditions. They hired native guides to lead them to locations rich in native fauna, which they then collected and shipped back to the United States. These specimens were later labeled in St. Louis, dried, and catalogued in the herbarium for future reference.
Pring and others collected many species of tropical orchids for the garden. But the garden’s collection received a real boost from the generosity of a career bureaucrat in Panama. One of Pring’s trips, he met Charles Powell, an employee of the Panama Canal Zone Authority. For many years Powell had lived and worked in Panama. His hobby and passion was orchid collecting, and Panama was one of the best spots in the world for such an activity. By the time he retired, he had one of the greatest private orchid collections in the world.
He knew, however, that he could not care for his collection by himself, nor could he provide for its upkeep after he was gone. Therefore, he donated his collection, and his garden, to the Missouri Botanical Garden. It became the Panama Extension Station of the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1926.