The history of the garden begins in 1903 when William Chambers Coker, a botany professor at UNC started planting trees on central campus for teaching. As the number of trees increased, this area became known as the Coker Arboretum. In the 1920’s Professor Coker and Henry Totten decided to build a larger botanical facility south of campus. Several small plants and shrubs were added in the 1930s and 1940s, but in 1952 seventy-acres of forest was contributed by UNC trustees. Soon after horticulturalist William Hunt bestowed 103 acres of gorges and bluffs to the project. Years later, Hunt was also instrumental in starting the membership organization, Botanical Garden Foundation.
In 1961, C. Ritchie Bell became manager of the garden, and the garden opened to the public on Arbor Day in 1966. In 1968, director C. Ritchie Bell published Wild Flowers of North Carolina in 1968, which brought widespread attention to the garden. In 1971, the garden included displays and the volunteer program was introduced. In 1973 the Herb Garden was started which initiated a garden to study plant diversity. Three years later the Totten Garden Center was started. In 1984, the garden helped to found the Center for Plant Conservation dedicated to the protection of rare plants. In 1985 the book, Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers was published by the garden staff. In 1986, C. Ritchie Bell retired and Peter S. White became the garden’s second director.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the garden grew under superintendent Ken Moore, as the number of students, staff, and volunteers increased as did the number of garden displays of southeastern flora. The North Carolina Botanical Garden consists of eight categories: the Aquatic Collection, the Southeastern Fern Collection, the Rare Plant Collection, the Carnivorous Collection, the Coastal Plain Collection, the Sandhills Collection, the Mountain Collection, and the Habitat Collection. Moreover, the site consists of a 165-acre nature trail, that includes trees over 200-years old, and features the Paul Green Cabin that was used by its namesake as a haven for literary creativity.
The North Carolina Botanical Garden is a leading research facility for the conservation, display, and interpretation of southeastern plants and their natural habitat. It remains one of the country’s foremost conservation gardens with its curriculum in plant rescue and natural resource management of native plants. With many displays of southeastern flora and endangered plants, the site also includes seven nature preserves across North Carolina.
Latest additions to the facility include the UNC Herbarium and a Visitor Education Center designed in 2000. Today, the center consists of 2,500 species of plants and includes greenhouses and natural areas to study development biology, birds, native plants, horticulture and ecology.
“North Carolina Botanical Garden.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
"Mission and History." North Carolina Botanical Garden. N.p., n.d. <http://ncbg.unc.edu/mission-and-history/>.(Accessed June 5, 2012).
By Shane Williams, North Carolina History Project