These 2,400 acres are operated as an extension of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. The first piece of land, 1,300 acres, was purchased in 1925 when pollution from coal smoke in St. Louis threatened the Garden's live plant collection, especially the orchid
collection. The orchids were moved to what was then known as the Gray Summit Extension in 1926. The pollution in St. Louis decreased with the waning use of coal for heat, making it unnecessary to move the rest of the live plant collection. The Garden made five more land purchases between 1926-1977 amounting to the Nature Reserve's current size of 2,444 acres.
Shaw Nature Reserve has several historic homes, a large tallgrass prairie, and a wetland blind from which herons can be observed. The Nature Reserve is also home to the Whitmire Wildflower Garden, a 3-acre Missouri native garden with more than 500 native plant species.
More than 17 miles of hiking trails run through the Nature Reserve.