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Birmingham Botanical Gardens

Jonathan Eizyk, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Birmingham Botanical Gardens
The Birmingham Botanical Gardens (BBG) is a 67.5-acre expanse of land that currently contains more than 25 separate and unique themed gardens and is home to more than 10,000 native and non-native plants. The gardens feature an assortment of trails as well as a garden center, a glass conservatory, and an array of ponds, bridges, and outdoor sculptures. Additionally, the BBG is home to the largest public horticulture library in the United States. Open daily, the facility offers free admission to the public and welcomes more than 350,000 visitors each year. Opened in 1962, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens is often referred to as "Alabama's largest living museum" and is currently the most visited free attraction in the state.
Located near the heart of Birmingham, Jefferson County, the BBG sits on the southern slope of Red Mountain, adjacent to the Birmingham Zoo. Both entities are situated on 200-acres of the former Lane Park, named after Birmingham mayor Alexander Oscar Lane (1848-1916). The origins of the gardens trace back to the early 1960s, when Mayor James W. Morgan decided to pursue his dream of developing a large public garden within the city.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens Conservatory
Despite objections from the city's Park and Recreation Board in building such a garden, Morgan opted to go forward with his project and chose for the garden the 69 acres of land just east of the Birmingham Zoo. After selecting this initial site, Morgan then sought guidance and inspiration for his new project by visiting the world-famous Montreal Botanical Gardens, located in Montreal, Canada. Morgan met with curator Henry E. Teuscher and asked for his help in designing a master plan for Birmingham's future gardens. The two men first focused on planning the design for what would eventually become BBG's first main structure: the Conservatory. Starting with a budget of only $150,000 for construction of the entire project, Morgan hired local architect Charles McCauley to execute the design concept. Work began in September 1961, and the Conservatory opened to the public on December 18, 1962. Other projects soon followed. Among the early additions to BBG was a large floral clock, with a face comprised of some 5,000 flowers, placed in front of the Conservatory. Another early and popular addition to BBG was a 7.5-acre Japanese Garden, complete with bonsai and cherry trees as well as an authentic Japanese teahouse.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens Plant Sale
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw even more expansions and improvements to the BBG. Much of this work was directed by William R. J. Dunn, who became president of the BBG in 1966 and served as its longest running president. Under Dunn's leadership, the BBG saw the creation of more than 20 additional gardens, including the Dogwood and Lily Garden, as well as the popular Iris Garden. In 1964, the BBG broke ground on a new rose garden, and workers discovered remains of the parkland's former use: In May of that year, workmen removing dirt uncovered the remains of at least three unknown graves, evidence of the site's former use as a pauper's cemetery. That same year also saw the creation of the Birmingham Botanical Society (also known as Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens), an organization established for the purpose of supporting and improving the gardens, and members of the Birmingham Botanical Society were responsible for much of BBG's fund-raising and community outreach programs.
Jemison Lily Garden
The BBG has seen its several expansions over its history. The 3.5-acre Curry Rhododendron Garden, designed by Irvin T. Nelson and built under the direction of the Rhododendron Society, opened in 1975 with more than 2,500 rhododendrons and azaleas. BBG's Vegetable Garden also opened in the 1970s, and it has continued to grow in size and scope. The 1980s brought new exhibits, including the Hosta Walk (designed in 1985), the Ireland Iris Garden (dedicated in 1986), the Jemison Lily Garden (dedicated in 1986), and the Ireland Old-Fashioned Rose Garden (dedicated in 1988). The BBG also became a host site for an eastern sycamore sapling grown from seed that had traveled to the Moon and back on Apollo 14 in 1971. The tree, located near the Dunn Formal Rose Garden, now measures more than 84 feet tall and is affectionately known as the "Moon Tree."
Disaster struck the gardens on March 29, 1991, when the BBG suffered significant damage after a powerful storm. High winds snapped and uprooted more than 1,000 trees, broke some 200 panes of glass in the Conservatory, and damaged numerous plants. Clean-up efforts took several months to complete and cost the BBG more than $146,000. To date, it was the single worst threat The Gardens had ever experienced.
Arrington Plant Adventure Zone
BBG's current mission involves continuing to work with the city of Birmingham in promoting public knowledge about plants, gardens, and the environment. It currently offers classes to the public that are open to both BBG members and non-members alike. Popular classes include flora photography, gardening, and yoga. The Birmingham Botanical Gardens has made it a goal to become the nation's largest and most beautiful botanical gardens. In order to help achieve this goal, BBG created the position of executive director and CEO, above the position of president and hired landscape architect and educator Frederick R. Spicer Jr to fill it. As CEO, Spicer is tasked with working directly with Birmingham city officials in securing funding and bringing resources to the Gardens and continuing BBG's projected growth. Other officers include President Brian Parr and Vice President of Development Beverly Hoyt.
The BBG is managed by a board of directors comprised of 18 members who work closely with the CEO and Birmingham Botanical Society volunteers.. A "Junior Board" was started in 2010 with aims of increasing diversity at The Gardens and hosting events and classes to achieve the goals and mission of the BBG. Like the board of directors, this board also has 18 members, as well as chairs in education, special events, and public relations.
Additional Resources
Gerlach, Gary G. "Internment Records of the Red Mountain Cemetery, 1888-1906: Burial Records Transcribed from the Internment Book Collection 1015." Birmingham: Birmingham Public Library Archives Department. 2004.
Satterfield, Carolyn Green. "The Birmingham Botanical Society: A Brief History." Birmingham: Birmingham Printing and Publishing, 1999.
Published:  November 20, 2015   |   Last updated:  December 7, 2015