Parts of the following history are adapted from a series of articles
and a formal history (A Labor of Love) written by Dorothy Hussey.
The Botanical Gardens at Asheville, originally called the University
Botanical Gardens, is located on a ten-acre tract of land adjacent to the
University of North Carolina at Asheville. The evolving beauty of the
Gardens over the past four decades is the result of the dedication of
hundreds of volunteers. Although located on UNC-A property, the Botanical
Gardens receives no operating funds from the university or from local,
state, or federal governments.
By the mid-1950’s the dream of a native plant preserve had been
simmering in the minds of many individuals and groups in the area for many
years. After World War II, population expansion led to the growth of new
housing developments, businesses, and roads across the countryside.
Magnificent trees, shrubs, and wildflowers were destroyed in the process.
Bruce Shinn and her husband Tom, Marjorie McCracken, and Lorene Macon had
been rescuing and transplanting native plants for years. With their
private gardens filling up, they envisioned a public area where threatened
native species could be preserved for future generations to enjoy.
In 1959, a confluence of events set Mrs. Shinn’s vision in motion.
Asheville-Biltmore College, the forerunner of UNC-A, announced that it had
acquired land for a new campus in North Asheville. Mrs. Ann Serota,
biology teacher at Asheville-Biltmore College, had harbored the idea of a
garden and greenhouse for some time, and she asked the president of the
college to set aside land on the new campus for that purpose. At about the
same time, Bruce Shinn asked the editor of the Asheville Citizen to
write an editorial in support of the concept of a public garden. His
editorial appeared on January 17, 1960, and elicited an immediate positive
response. Public contributions began to arrive.
On November 13, 1960, a group of 61 civic leaders and nature-loving
Asheville citizens held an organizational meeting at Seely’s Castle on
Town Mountain, which was then the site of the Asheville-Biltmore College.
With a common purpose and dream, they established the Asheville-Biltmore
College Botanical Association. By early 1961, “… Asheville’s native plant preserve had a place, a name, a board
with officers, incorporation papers, and by-laws.” Asheville landscape
architect, Doan R. Ogden, agreed to develop the original design plans and
oversee the start of work. Clearing the land was the volunteers’ first
task. It is hard to visualize today how horrible the area looked. It was
partly-eroded, cut-over timberland, filled with high weeds, dead limbs and
trees, invasive vines, and poison ivy, and adorned with mountains of
trash. Cleaning up began in early 1961 and continued through 1962. The
central wildflower trail, created in honor of Frank Crayton, a
self-trained naturalist and early supporter of the Gardens, was dedicated
by Doan Ogden in 1961. In the fall of 1962, Doan Ogden reported, “…
Stage one is complete. One can see the results of planning, plowing,
pleading, and planting.” The 1963 newsletter announced that “All paths
are clear and passable, the treasury has $10,000, and 30 percent of the
area has been cleared.
In March, 1964, planting began in earnest,
and by the end of the year, more than 5000 plants had been set out.
Volunteers took multi-car safaris to rescue plants from bulldozers and, by
permit, to gather plants from private lands and national forests. The
Green Bridge was erected across Glenn’s Creek and named for its donor,
Mrs. Gay Green — not for its color, although she requested that it
always remain green. In 1965, an original log cabin was donated by Mrs.
Leona Hayes in memory of her husband Hubert H. Hayes, author, folklorist,
and founder of Asheville’s Mountain Jamboree. The cabin, complete with
its unenclosed “dog trot,” was moved from its original location in the
California Creek section of Madison County and rebuilt, log by log, in the
Gardens. “Margie’s spring house” was built in 1967 to honor Marjorie
McCracken, an early visionary and long-time chair of the Horticulture
The last year of the first decade saw initiation of the first “Day in
the Gardens” spring plant sale and festival in May, 1969. This event has
been held each year since then on the first Sunday in May, and has become
an Asheville tradition for acknowledging the coming of spring. Several
regional vendors of native plants congregate on the grounds to offer their
selections to hundreds of eager gardeners who come to enjoy their first
taste of buying and planning for the season.
In its second decade, the contributions of dozens of dedicated volunteers
enabled the Botanical Gardens to continue its slow but steady growth. In
1970, a Founders Fund Award from the Garden Clubs of America provided for
establishment of a rock garden stretching 125 feet along the road beside
Reed Creek. In 1971, the Board of Directors began an endowment fund with a
bequest from the estate of Miss Beryl Fraser. In May, 1972, the Annual
Spring Wildflower and Bird Pilgrimage was established by Dr. Jim Perry of
UNCA’s Biology Department. The Pilgrimage provides lectures, bird walks,
and field trips on the same weekend as our Day in the Gardens. This
cooperative project offers a dynamic setting for alumni, university
students, visitors to Asheville, and the community at large to celebrate
the freshness of spring. On Arbor Day in 1976, the Gardens was honored to
become the recipient of a three-foot Sycamore that was planted on the
grounds with special ceremonies. This distinguished tree was grown from a
seed that had been taken to the moon on the Apollo 14 flight in 1971 and
was one of only six planted in North Carolina that year.
In the years from 1980 to 1984, plans and construction were completed for
the Visitor Center. Its need had become evident as the Gardens became
widely known and visited. Today, the Visitor Center is a focal point for
tourists and a popular meeting site for educational and ecological groups,
members of the Gardens, and the local community. The Visitor Center
includes the Cole Botany Library, home of an excellent collection of
botanical and horticultural references; the Charles M. Butler meeting
room; and the Crownover Solarium, named in honor of James E. Crownover,
longtime manager of the Gardens. The solarium contains insectivorous
plants and other flowers of interest which are often available for
purchase. The Garden Path Gift Shop, selling a varied selection of
garden-themed items is also located in the Visitor Center.
In addition to its central mission of preservation of the native plants of
the southern Appalachians, the Botanical Gardens has always placed great
emphasis on research and education. In 1986, the family of John and
Elizabeth Andrews Izard generously established an endowment fund to
provide for education and research scholarships in horticulture and
botany. Each year, the Izard Scholarship enables one university student to
pursue a project that enriches his career preparation and adds to the
scientific knowledge base.
In 1999, a grant from the Community Foundation supported an extensive
project which produced the Gardens’ first formal strategic plan. At the
turn of the century, year 2000, the Gardens’ marked its fortieth
anniversary. In the time since its inception, what had begun as an
overgrown patch of land had developed into a mature native garden. Thanks
to the vision and labor of numerous volunteers and a small paid staff, the
Gardens continues to evolve. In the past four years, grants and donations
have supported the addition of an Entry Garden, the Joiner Bird Deck, the
Wilson Bird Garden, and the Peyton Rock Outcrop. An erosion control
project funded by the Clean Water Management Trust Fund has fortified the
two streams that traverse the grounds, and the parking lot was expanded following an ecologically-friendly design that incorporates
storm water biofiltration and a rain garden.
Today, the Botanical Gardens at Asheville hosts visitors and botanists
from all over the world. Displays are in a continual state of renewal and
growth. Our dedication to the natural flora of this region is often
rewarded by the encouraging comments of people who enjoy having their
connection with nature rekindled by the beauty and serenity of these
The Botanical Gardens is supported by contributions, endowments, grants,
memberships, and proceeds from our Gift Shop and special programs. Many
members contribute time and labor for planting, maintaining the Gardens,
performing endless administrative tasks, greeting visitors, and helping
with sales. The Gardens provides a study area for students, and the
Visitor Center is a repository of horticultural information for interested
individuals, garden clubs, schools, and many other groups. First and
foremost, the Botanical Gardens at Asheville is a wildlife and ecological
refuge devoted to the preservation and display of native flora of the
Appalachian region. We invite you to visit us!