Formal Gardens

Throughout history, designed gardens have been a source of pleasure and delight as well as a way of establishing order in nature.

Throughout history, designed gardens have been a source of pleasure and delight as well as a way of establishing order in nature.

Formal gardens are usually organized along a central axis with borders and pathways to define space. They are known for symmetry, repeated plant palettes, and structural focal elements such as fountains, planters, and art. Formal gardens within botanical gardens are also a way of maintaining and displaying horticultural collections. 

Plant societies have played a key role in the development and growth of Memphis Botanic Garden. In 1953, the Iris Garden was established by the planting of irises in its current location with the Iris Society as caretakers. The following year, the Memphis Rose Society relocated their display Rose Garden from Overton Park to here, and this one-time city park began to transform into a botanical garden. From the Memphis Daylily Society establishing their noteworthy Daylily Circle collection in the 1980s to the tireless way Memphis Herb Society tends the Herb Garden today, we are indebted to the committed volunteers who share in our mission to connect people with plants.

Garden clubs have also been instrumental in creating and maintaining many of our engaging formal gardens. In 1966, Memphis Garden Club established a serene Water Garden that can be viewed from the Visitors Center and a few years later created a Sculpture Garden that now features pieces from eleven notable Memphis artists. The award-winning Sensory Garden, built in 1989 by The Little Garden Club of Memphis, encourages visitors to experience a formal garden using all of the senses. 

You’ll also want to enjoy the seasonal color displays in our Four Seasons Court and the Live Garden and view some of the majestic specimens found in the Conifer Collection. We hope that you will spend time immersed in each of our formal gardens, not only to learn about the plant collections but to experience the timeless tradition of good horticultural design.


Coniferophyta is a large, diverse classification of trees and shrubs that share a common trait; cones, not flowers, are the primary reproductive structure. Most conifers are evergreen; although some species (Dawn Redwood, Bald Cypress, Golden Larch) are deciduous, meaning they shed their leaves as winter approaches. Cones may vary greatly across this group, ranging from a prickly, woody pine cone, whose seeds are a key ingredient in pesto, to the small ‘berries’ of the junipers—not a true fruit but one that is used to flavor gin.


Even though they are most abundant in cooler climates, conifers can be found growing the world over. Memphis Botanic Garden features over 300 individuals across approximately 100 different species. In addition to those in this area, be sure to check out the concentration of conifers in My Big Backyard and the Japanese Garden. Collectively, these plants form our Conifer Collection which was acknowledged by the American Conifer Society as a Conifer Reference Garden in 2014.


Daylilies, despite their name, are not actually lilies. The name Hemerocallis, derived from the Greek words for ‘day’ and ‘beautiful’, comes from the fact that each bloom only lasts for about one day. The flowers are edible and contain many vitamins.  Some believe that consuming them may even help with insomnia. 

Before 1900, all daylilies were orange and yellow like the Asian species that were first brought to America. Since then, hybridizers have developed over 90,000 cultivars with a multitude of colors, patterns, and forms. Our collection started in 1982 when Thomas Trotter, a charter member of the Memphis Daylily Society, donated plants from his garden. The society continued to add to and maintain this collection that now consists of almost 1,000 different varieties and is recognized as an official display garden of the American Daylily Society. Peak viewing time is late May through June. 

Since daylilies grow from tuberous roots that absorb a lot of water, they can help prevent soil erosion in sloped gardens. They are also deer resistant and drought tolerant making them a great addition to any yard.

Four Seasons

Fountains are the main focus of this garden accessed directly outside of the east doors exiting the Visitors Center. This is a formal garden designed in the classical style. Dwarf Buford Hollies and Carolina Hornbeams provide the formal structure for ever-changing seasonal displays. These displays are meant to introduce visitors to plants not normally utilized in the home landscape. At the end of this garden is the lushly planted Tram Bed that changes seasonally with themed displays.


Merriam-Webster defines an herb in two different ways. Botanically speaking, herbs are non-woody (herbaceous) plants that die down at the end of the growing season. More commonly, they are defined as a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities. Herbs are generally thought of as the green or leafy part of the plant, while spices come from bark, roots, and seeds. There are some non-herbaceous exceptions, such as rosemary, lavender, and a few other woody-stemmed plants that are considered to be herbs as well.

The Memphis Herb Society has maintained a garden at MBG since 1986. The garden was relocated and expanded in 2011 to include a broader definition of herbs and over 300 different plants that each have a long history of human use for a variety of reasons.

The garden is divided into three main sections: a formal garden featuring traditional herbs arranged by usage, a woodland displaying ethnobotanical plants from around the world by country of origin, and a meadow which includes some of the more vigorous herbs.


Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow making the flower’s name appropriate since its blooms appear in a wide range of colors. The purple iris is the state flower of Tennessee. These beloved garden flowers have a relatively short blooming period that begins mid-April.  

There are nearly 300 hundred different species of irises worldwide, with the bearded iris being the most commonly planted type. Bearded irises are the primary species in our garden with hundreds of varieties planted. The name comes from the fuzzy growth or ‘beard’ that grows on the base of the petal. They are easy to care for provided they are planted in full sun with good drainage. The plants grow from spreading rhizomes that can be easily divided and shared.

Noted as MBG’s first established garden, this collection started with a donation of 2,500 rhizomes from the Ketchum estate. Other types of iris planted in this garden include Louisiana, Japanese, Siberian, and Yellow Flag.


The Live Garden is for more than just live music performances. It’s also used for our Food Truck Garden Parties, school programming, and other outdoor events. Within the Live Garden is a meandering walkway that follows the International Paper Living Wall. The Living Wall plantings include various native plants. The native plants are planted along with various perennials, annuals, trees, and shrubs to ensure three seasons of interest.


The Live Garden also features a beautiful turf grass, a cultivar of zoysiagrass (Zoysia matrella) called ‘royal’. It was developed by Texas A&M University and is distinguished by its fine texture, high rhizome and tiller density, shade tolerance, and rapid regrowth and recovery from damage. The Garden’s horticulture staff takes extra measures to deal with foot compaction that affects the turf and trees in our Live Garden.

As you come and visit the Memphis Botanic Garden we hope you take some extra time to stroll through and enjoy the beauty and diversity of our Live Garden.


Roses are one of the oldest flowers with fossils dating back to 35 million years. They are part of a large and diverse plant family comprised of over 3,000 different species of climbing vines, shrubs, and trees. Apples, peaches, almonds, plums and cherries all belong to the Rose family. 

Roses produce small fruits called rose hips. These seed pods are often used medicinally as they are high in antioxidants, in particular vitamin C, and can help with inflammation. Rose hips can also be eaten in the form of jelly, teas, and syrup.  

Roses prefer low humidity making them difficult to grow in the Mid-South. They are susceptible to disease and insect damage requiring higher maintenance than other garden flowers, but the end result is worth it. Our Rose Garden is designed as a formal area for weddings and other events so that guests can be surrounded by the beautiful blooms.


This garden, designed by Tom Pellet and supported by The Little Garden Club of Memphis, enables individuals with special needs to enjoy their Garden experience with ease. The plants around the perimeter of the Sensory Garden are elevated, so they are easy to view from a wheelchair, and visitors are treated to the sounds of wind chimes and fountains as they tour the area.

The plantings offer a sensory experience in every season and feature every class of plants grown on the MBG grounds from trees, shrubs, and groundcovers to annuals, perennials, and bulbs. A pergola entry, obelisk focal point, and nighttime lighting create a wonderful ambiance for receptions, special events, and gatherings.


This beautiful space combines art and plantings while serving as a showcase for garden design.  Featuring work from over ten notable Memphis artists and plants exhibiting sculptural qualities, this area creates a memorable entrance into the 96 acre grounds.

The Sculpture Garden also showcases the sculptural qualities of plants. Boxwood parterres were designed to mirror the architecture of the Visitors Center and a cloud-pruned Seiju Chinese Elm utilizes aesthetic pruning to bring out the tree’s highly sculptural qualities.  Click to learn more about the Garden’s sculpture and art collections.


This outdoor room, located inside the Visitors Center, was originally constructed in 1965 thanks to the generous and ongoing support of the Memphis Garden Club. Recent modernization of this central space transformed it into a beautiful and useful area that’s easily accessible to our guests.

The Water Garden is a landscaped patio area that is open to all guests during our regular hours of operation. The Water Garden also features Kinetic Crane a large and colorful kinetic sculpture by local artist Yvonne Bobo in collaboration with engineer Anuj Anjaria.