Mission and History


The North Carolina Botanical Garden is a unit of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We further the University's mission of teaching, research, and public service through our own mission:

"To inspire understanding, appreciation, and conservation of plants and to advance a sustainable relationship between people and nature."

One of our dedicated groups of volunteers, the Greenbriers, have researched and published a 50-year history of the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Volume I is the history of the Garden, and Volume II includes the appendices.

Click here for a complete timeline of North Carolina Botanical Garden History.

Click here for a recommended reading list.

Core Values

The Garden is committed to:

  • Serving the public
  • Displaying, interpreting, and promoting the diverse flora of the southeastern United States in a well-maintained and beautiful garden
  • Being a leading center for research and education on the flora of the southeastern United States and the relationship between plants, environment, and the quality of human lives
  • Reaching diverse audiences with rich experiences and opportunities for learning, contemplation, and respite
  • Conserving biological diversity, using natural resources sustainably, and integrating a conservation ethic in all we do
  • Incorporating a sense of place, at scales ranging from the local to the regional, in order to reflect our garden, our land, and our community
  • Building a sense of community and collaboration with other horticultural and conservation organizations
  • Participating in university research, teaching, and other academic programs
  • Celebrating and building on the botanical legacy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Honoring and respecting, staff and volunteers, members, and visitors

Read the 2010 - 2012 Strategic Plan.


The history of the North Carolina Botanical Garden is a history of the people and botanical legacy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 1903, William Chambers Coker, the University's first professor of botany, began planting a teaching collection of trees and shrubs on the central campus. This collection was to become the Coker Arboretum. Starting in the late 1920s, Coker and his student Henry Roland Totten, proposed a more complete botanical garden south of the main campus. Although some plantings were made by the 1940s, it was in 1952 that the Trustees dedicated 70 forested acres for botanical garden development. To this tract were added 103 acres of dramatic creek gorge and rhododendron bluffs, donated by William Lanier Hunt, a horticulturist and former student of Coker and Totten.

Hunt also helped to found the Garden's membership support organization, the Botanical Garden Foundation (now the North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation), in 1966. In 1961, Dr. C. Ritchie Bell was appointed the Garden's first director. The Garden's first public offering-its Nature Trails-opened on Arbor Day in April 1966. Its first state appropriation was acquired five years later in 1971, when the first employee, J. Kenneth Moore was hired.

Director C. Ritchie Bell, a professor of botany and tireless promoter of the flora of North Carolina, had enlisted the support of the North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation and the Garden Club of North Carolina to publish a book of photos with William S. Justice. Wild Flowers of North Carolina (UNC Press 1968) filled a need among wildflower lovers and students of natural history, and it brought valuable attention to the fledgling North Carolina Botanical Garden. Dr. Bell also enlisted many students to help at the Garden even before he hired its first employee.

The Garden's formative period coincided with a surge of interest in plants and conservation fueled by Earth Day celebrations and the environmental movement. The Garden's early era was characterized by limited resources and unlimited idealism and energy. During the 1970s and 1980s, students, volunteers, and a growing staff under the leadership of Superintendent Ken Moore constructed "habitat gardens"-displays representing the major plant communities of the state and illustrating botanist B. W. Wells's theme of The Natural Gardens of North Carolina (UNC Press, 1932: rev. ed. 2002). The Garden's administrative, research, and public education space, the Totten Center (named for University of North Carolina botanist Henry Roland Totten and his wife Addie), was opened in 1976.

The 1960s also saw the initiation of field research on a contiguous 367-acre tract of old farmland and native woodlands dedicated by the UNC Trustees in 1984 as the Mason Farm Biological Reserve. Today, the Reserve provides research facilities (greenhouses, cultivation beds, and natural areas) for diverse projects in disciplines such as ecology, bird behavior, population biology, genetics, and developmental biology.

Encouraged by the North Carolina Wild Flower Preservation Society (now the North Carolina Native Plant Society), whose members had helped found the Garden, Superintendent Moore promoted "Conservation Through Propagation" as an alternative to the unethical collection of native plants from their natural habitats. He recruited a growing corps of volunteers who provided valuable assistance to staff in welcoming visitors, leading tours, conducting "plant rescues," propagating plants, and constructing the Mercer Reeves Hubbard Herb Garden. In partnership with the North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation, the Garden became a steward of natural areas near Chapel Hill and elsewhere in the state. As the Garden matured and added staff with other areas of expertise, the Garden developed programs and collections of national significance, such as the Southeastern Carnivorous Plant Collection. In 1984, the North Carolina Botanical Garden became one of the founding members of the Center for Plant Conservation, a network of gardens and arboreta responsible for the collection of propagules, research, and protection of our nation's rarest plants.

Staff members and volunteers were motivated by a desire to practice conservation and demonstrate a high standard for all public gardens.

In 1985, more than 15 years of work at the Garden were summarized in the popular book Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers (published by
UNC Press), written and illustrated by North Carolina Botanical Garden staff. In order to focus their efforts, Garden staff drafted a long-range plan for the Garden in 1984.

Dr. Bell retired as director in 1986 and was succeeded by Peter White. Dr. White led a review of the 1984 "Long Range Plan," resulting in the "Report on Mission, Goals, and Objectives" (1988). Next came the completion of a new Master Plan by Jones & Jones (approved by the University Trustees in 1990). In 1997, the North Carolina Legislature granted funds for design of the Herbarium and Botanical Library building, one of two new facilities described in the Master Plan. In 2000, with support from a $2.7 million bequest, the staff launched the design of the Master Plan's Visitor Education Center by Frank Harmon Architects (approved by the State of North Carolina in 2003). This building is designed to be a Platinum-rated building (under the LEED rating system of the U.S. Green Building Council). Dr. White retired from the Garden in December 2014. Dr. Damon Waitt became the director in April 2015.

In the years since its founding, the Garden has acquired responsibility for four other major units:

The lands of the Garden have grown to some 1,100 acres, not including a number of nature preserves held by the North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation (210 acres).

Today the North Carolina Botanical Garden is nationally known for its conservation programs, educational collections, and diverse programs including native plant studies, botanical illustration, and horticultural therapy. Since the early 1990s, and building on themes that go back to the Garden's founding, the staff has crafted a unique and new theme for botanical gardens: The Conservation Garden.

Read more facts about the North Carolina Botanical Garden...

Updated on March 22, 2017 at 09:08:53 am.