By Erin Heffernan • St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — 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 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 planned to retire earlier this month.

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.”

‘Our backyard’

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.

He learned how to care for unusual plants but also discovered the history of the institution, which was founded by prominent businessman Henry Shaw in 1859.

“I’ve always liked that he made the garden for the public to enjoy,” Wolff said. “It wasn’t his private garden that later was opened up; this was always his vision.”

Wolff met what he calls many “great names in horticulture” during his early years, including one of his personal heroes, George H. Pring, who was the pre-eminent tropical water lily expert of his time.

In one of his first weekends, Wolff spotted Pring in a greenhouse dressed in his signature attire: a shirt and tie, a skimmer hat and seersucker pants he wore even under waders while working in the lily pools.

“I told him: ‘Sir, you’re not allowed in here,’” Wolff said. “And he just said: ‘Son, I have been here longer than you’ve been alive.’”

“I thought my career was over right there,” Wolff said, laughing.

When Wolff was 24, he noticed a beautiful young woman who worked in the education department walking to pick up the mail for the office each day.

He began making a point to mow the lawn near her path each day.

Wolff soon learned her name was Doris and asked her out. His favorite spot in the garden to this day is the rose garden because he remembers spending time with her there when they were dating, falling in love with the garden as a backdrop.

The couple married in 1975 and soon moved into a home on the garden grounds. Wolff volunteered to occupy the home because there needed to be a licensed engineer on garden grounds at all times.

He remembers waking up in the middle of the night to fix the boiler or fill in as a night watchman when members of the small security force called in sick.

Two of Wolff’s four children spent their first years of life in that home, playing in the garden.

He remembers their black Labrador, Midnight, getting loose and his 2-year-old daughter Jennifer chasing him through the garden paths.

They eventually bought a house beyond the garden grounds in 1979. Their former garden home was torn down and replaced with a front entrance parking lot.

Water lily maestro

Wolff took on more responsibility in the garden in 1972 when he was put in charge of water lilies, one of the garden’s most striking plants.

Wolff typed out letters to his mentor Patrick Nut, a water lily expert at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, to learn the intricacies of caring for the lilies.

Nut replied with advice on how to store the tubers, what kind of soil to use and ways to prevent the plants from dying during fluctuations in water temperature.

Over the years, Wolff also developed an expertise in chrysanthemums, learning how to make them cascade into complicated shapes to fit specific displays in the garden. It’s a tricky task that took years to master, he said.

It’s an emotional goodbye for Wolff, whose voice sometimes breaks when he talks about his last day. But it’s also hard for his daughter Jennifer, who has worked in interpretation at the garden for 18 years.

“I’m so proud of my dad,” she said, getting emotional. “So many people have come to my office in tears telling me that he was kind to them, and they’re going to miss him.”