History of Memphis Botanic Garden



On May 22, 1819, John Overton, James Winchester, and Andrew Jackson founded the City of Memphis and formed Shelby County on land secured through land speculation and post-war land grants. That same year, North Carolinian Geraldus Oscar Buntyn was granted, as payment for his services in the War of 1812, a parcel of land approximately 10 miles east of the city. Buntyn erected a house on the current location of Memphis Country Club and there, with his wife, Eliza, reared eight children and became a very successful corn and cotton planter. Mr. Buntyn prospered, bought additional land, and at the time of his death in 1865 owned 40,000 acres.

In 1838, the Memphis-LaGrange Railroad cut through the middle of his property. The first stop was almost at Mr. Buntyn’s front door and was called Buntyn Station. A small community developed around the station as part of his successful plantation. In 1854, Buntyn built a house as a wedding present for his daughter Sally Ann and her husband Robert D. Goodwyn. A dirt east-west mule trail that would eventually become Southern Avenue connected Sally Ann’s house with that of her parents. Another dirt road running north-south through the property would later become Goodwyn Road. The Goodwyns had seven children, one of whom, Fannie Luzzie, married James Robert Heard. When Sally Ann Goodwyn died in 1871, Robert and Fannie Luzzie inherited a section of the original Buntyn Plantation that included the Goodwyn house. Another daughter had married Charles Perkins, and the road through their inherited land became Perkins Road.



In 1947, Mr. Edward Crump decided the City needed a park outside city limits that would complement Overton Park. He influenced Mayor Sylvanus Polk and Park Commission head John Vesey to purchase the old Goodwyn House and 186.5 acres for $205,000 from Robert G. Heard, great grandson of Sally Ann and Robert Goodwyn. The county also purchased an adjacent 169 acres from the Snowden estate for $195,000. The Goodwyn house was razed and the land around it developed into a golf course and lake on part of the newly acquired 355.5 acres. Mr. Crump wanted the new area to be named Bluebird Park, but the commissioners decided that it should be named after noted naturalist John James Audubon. There was already a smaller park inside the city named Audubon and a decision was made to call the new park Audubon and the smaller park Bluebird. Later, Bluebird Park became Tobey Park to honor Mayor Frank Tobey.

In 1953, 2,500 iris rhizomes from the gardens of Mrs. Morgan Ketchum were given to the park and the Ketchum Memorial Iris Garden was created. This gift marked the beginning of planned beds and displays for the Gardens of Audubon Park. This garden, with its well-tended areas and fountain, remains a focal point for Garden visitors.
An arboretum was established in 1957 to honor W.C. Paul, who died in 1951 and was an active member of the Memphis Men’s Garden Club. Mr. Paul had long dreamed of an arboretum for Memphis, prompting landscape architect George Madlinger and the Lumberman’s Club of Memphis to continue this dream with the creation of The W.C. Paul Arboretum in the Gardens of Audubon Park. The Arboretum and the Iris Garden were the two projects that served as catalysts for a section of the park to be recognized and developed as a botanical garden.

The following year, 1958, the Michie Magnolia Garden was donated by Mrs. Winston Michie, in honor of her late husband. This area presently contains 80 different varieties of magnolias.
Also in 1958, the Rose Garden in Overton Park was moved to Audubon Park. 11 years later, Mrs. Vance Norfleet donated the fountain that is currently the centerpiece for the 75 varieties of roses located in this garden.


In 1961, The Memphis Area Wildflower Society improved the southeast area of the park by creating a four-acre garden for approximately 350 American native plants, many of which are either endangered or considered very rare. This area is now known as The Woodland.

A public daylily collection was added in 1963 that now resides as a companion to the Iris Garden with the two gardens working together to provide a color display from April through June each year. Daylily Circle continues to be maintained in part by the Memphis Area Daylily Society.

The Garden was taking shape when the family of Jacob Goldsmith decided to honor Mr. Goldsmith’s memory with a building that would serve as an anchor and focal point of the Garden, plus provide needed meeting space. Construction was started in 1963, and the building, with its exhibition hall, meeting rooms, library, and administrative offices, was dedicated on March 22, 1964. The gift and construction were landmarks in the Garden’s history.

The Memphis Garden Club enhanced the building by making the Water Garden possible in 1966. Then, in 1968, they added the Sculpture Garden, affording those who were meeting in the main hall of Goldsmith Auditorium a beautiful view from the east windows.



Groundbreaking ceremonies for a Japanese Garden, designed by Dr. P.T. Tono of Tokyo and developed in cooperation with the Bamboo Chapter of Ikebana International, were held in December of 1965. The Japanese Garden, with its Red Bridge, would soon become one of the most photographed locations in the Memphis area. The Japanese Garden was redesigned in 1989 by noted garden designer, Dr. Koichi Kawana, working with local landscape architect J. Ritchie Smith. Dr. Kawana pioneered the design of traditional Japanese gardens that utilize plants native to the area. This garden continues to be a focal point at Memphis Botanic Garden.

In 1966, The Madlinger Azalea Trail was established in honor of George Madlinger, who was instrumental in the creation of the W.C. Paul Arboretum. The Meyer Dogwood Trail, made possible through a donation by Mrs. Sidney Kahn and family in memory of her parents, Dr. and Mrs. A.H. Meyer, was planted next to the Azalea Trail.



The Commercial Appeal stated that “the gardens of Audubon Park are getting a new name, The Memphis Botanic Garden,” on July 17, 1966. The new name was adopted in connection with efforts to coordinate and develop new and existing garden areas, and tie a network of roads and trails with the new Goldsmith Civic Garden Center.

Over 100,000 daffodil bulbs line both sides of the stone-lined creek beds in the southeast section of the Garden, to form the Charlotte Sawyer Daffodil Trail and Nana’s Garden/Daffodil Hill. This area was created in 1973 and was continued and enlarged thanks to the efforts of past Board President Jim Power, who dedicated the area to the memory of his mother. Each year, in late February and March, a sea of yellow and white daffodils announce the coming of spring.



The Garden has an impressive Conifer Collection that was established in 1981 and updated in 2002 and again in 2017 to include many dwarf varieties that are now available for the home landscape. In 2014, the collection was designated as a Conifer Reference Garden by the American Conifer Society.
A Cactus Collection was added to the Garden in 1983, then moved to a location on the north central borders of the property in 1995. With the creation of My Big Backyard in 2009, the Cactus Collection was incorporated into the new Desert Garden.

The first meeting of the Herb Society was held at the Garden in March 1986 and resulted in an area of the Garden being designated as an herb collection. The first herbs were planted later that year, and more the year following. By 2009, there were over 100 different herbs in this collection.

In 1989, The Little Garden Club developed and donated the Sensory Garden. This beautiful area, balancing sun and shade while capturing sight, smell, and hearing, soon became one of the Garden’s most visited signature areas.


In 1996, a major gift from Helen and Jabie Hardin served as the catalyst for the construction of the current Visitors Center and Hardin Hall. Hardin Hall is a beautiful, 5,500-square-foot convention center that serves as the venue for major corporate events, weddings, and trade shows. Hardin Hall rental has been a premier revenue producer for the Memphis Botanic Garden and has been a cornerstone of the Garden’s recent history.



During construction, the Garden’s tropical plant collection, which had been located in that area of the Visitors Center, was moved to the Thomas W. Briggs Conservatory Classroom. This educational greenhouse is used for programs and school group tours. An additional area geared towards children, the Hyde and Seek Discovery Trail, was also added during this time.

In 1997, the Anne Heard Stokes Butterfly Garden was created on the grounds just east of Daffodil Hill. In 2006, the garden was expanded and a water feature was added at the east end of this attractive stand-alone garden. This area is now called the Pollinator Garden.



Also in 1997, the Iris Garden underwent a major renovation utilizing state funds as part of the Tennessee Bicentennial Celebration to create a beautiful display for our Tennessee state flower. A fountain pool and statue of Iris was added by the family of John Pierce, one of the original members of the Iris Society.

1999 saw the beginnings of a renowned Hosta collection that has grown each year thanks to support from the Memphis Hosta Society. In 2006, the Hosta Trail was designated as a National Display Garden by the American Hosta Society. The garden now includes many showy companion plants as well as a bed featuring miniature hostas.

In 2001, the Memphis Botanic Garden decided to expand its mission and host a summer concert series called Live at the Garden. A stage would grace the east end of the Garden and would be fronted by candlelit tables, as well as a lawn area with open seating that allows for an audience of approximately 6,000 to enjoy the contemporary sounds and renditions of some of the country’s leading musicians. The series has grown each year, is highly anticipated, and has become one of the leading concert events in the Mid-South.

The Little Garden Club of Memphis continued their tradition of cherry tree planting, begun in the early 1950s, by replacing some of the original trees and filling in gaps along Cherry Road with 49 additional Yoshino cherries in 2004 and smaller plantings continuing on a regular basis.

In 2005, plans were unveiled announcing another major gift from Mr. and Mrs. Jabie Hardin. The gift resulted in the construction of a 5,500 square foot service and production greenhouse that was dedicated in 2006 and named in honor of Rick Pudwell, Director of Horticulture for the Garden. The remaining funds in this gift were designated for seed money to begin a capital campaign for a long-awaited Children’s Garden.



In 2006, the Tennessee Department of Urban Forestry awarded the Memphis Botanic Garden Level IV Arboretum status. This is the highest classification of levels and made the Garden only one of four in the state at that time. This award was achieved as a result of the efforts of a hard working group of volunteers. In 2012, because of continued efforts by the MBG staff and volunteer Tree Team, the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council awarded the Garden the designation of Urban Forestry Center of Excellence.

What was formerly the Hyde and Seek area was transformed into the Hyde and Seek Prehistoric Plant Trail in 2006 to accommodate curriculum on prehistoric times. The Fern Society created a fern trail as part of this project. Petrified wood was added, along with two dinosaur sculptures, children’s prehistoric cave, and dinosaur dig pit, to make the renovation complete.



The Hydrangea collection evolved in stages over the early 2000s. An initial planting adjacent to the Hosta Garden was made possible by Mrs. Buzzy Hussey and her family along with Jim Power. Additional panicle hydrangea beds were added near the Butterfly Garden by Southwind Garden Club. The Midsouth Hydrangea Society and landscape designer Diane Meucci were involved in planning and planting the main portion of the collection in 2007 with 142 plants directly across from the Hosta Trail, making the Hydrangea Garden a destination point for Garden visitors.

That same year the Missie Macdonald Azalea Path extended the current Azalea Trail with the addition of Encore azaleas. A variety of companion plantings were added to showcase various combinations of plant material to homeowners.

Another highlight of 2007 was the dedication of a Blue Star Memorial Marker at the corner of Park Avenue and Cherry Road, honoring all men and women who have served, are serving, or will serve in the Armed Forces of the United States. The marker sits in the midst of a specially-designed garden bed, stylized to represent the stars and stripes of the American flag. This project, sponsored by The Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs, Inc., District I, was made possible through a grant from the National Garden Clubs, Inc., and the Principal Financial Group, along with contributions from Memphis Botanic Garden, garden clubs, civic organizations, businesses, and individuals.



2008 saw the ground-breaking for the long-awaited children’s garden, and a 2.5 acre, $5.8 million construction project began. The result was My Big Backyard, a world-class garden that opened on August 1, 2009. The opening was a culmination of three years of design, development, and a capital campaign that significantly changed the face of the Garden and provided a wonderful resource for children and families throughout the Mid-South. Immediate impact was felt, with 800 new family memberships being added over the next eight months and admissions skyrocketing during the same time period. By this time, the Children’s Education Program at the Garden had grown to serve 36,000 children from 192 area schools, including 102 of Memphis’ 112 public schools. This made the reach of Memphis Botanic Garden’s education program 3.5 times the national average among large U.S. Gardens.

During this period of construction, the Daylily collection, first planted in 1963, found a new home around the perimeter of the Iris Garden as Daylily Circle. The bloom schedules of these two flowers complement each other, bringing color to this scenic garden for several months of the year.



In spring of 2010, the new Blecken Pavilion was constructed in the Hydrangea Garden in honor of donors Ann and Robert Blecken, founding members of the Memphis Horticultural Society. A restroom building was added nearby as part of the project.

The nearby rain shelter was converted into a very tasteful container garden, with stylish benches and large plant containers gracing this space. The Memphis Garden Club was the primary sponsor for this new addition.

In October 2011, a new .75 acre Herb Garden was created from design by Tom Pellett and Chris Cosby. With three distinct spaces boasting more than 2000 plants of 500 varieties, the Herb Garden is one of the largest in the South, and provides a popular attraction for casual visitors as well as an interactive space for education and herb programs. Members of Memphis Herb Society continue to be involved in the maintenance of this delightful garden.



In 2012 the Delta Garden was added as a demonstration garden for youth and adults to witness various native plants, including some associated with agriculture. Cotton, beans, tobacco, peanuts, melons, have all been part of this garden that continues to expand each year. The “Delta House” was moved to the site in 2019 to enhance educational programming and visitor engagement.



In 2013, the Japanese Maple Grove (previously planted in 1989 by Plato Touliatos to honor his parents) was transformed into the Asian Garden, which now includes many unique plants, additional Japanese Maples, and a water feature. The Memphis Horticultural Society designated the Touliatos Trail as part of this garden to honor the memory of Plato Touliatos, a horticulture legend in Memphis for many years.



2014 marked the busiest year for construction in the Garden’s history. With sponsorship from the Memphis Garden Club, the Sculpture Garden was renovated to include several noteworthy sculptures and new landscaping. The Sensory Garden was also renovated to include a new entry and updated plantings. The Little Garden Club of Memphis underwrote the funding for this magnificent renovation.



In 2014, a $6.5 million capital campaign made possible a new performing arts venue, now called the Radians Amphitheater, at the Garden. Included in this venue was a 4,750 square foot meeting facility that not only serves as a VIP room for concert nights but also provides a new rental facility for meetings, classes, and demonstrations. This building was named Sara’s Place to honor long-time volunteer and garden supporter Mrs. Howard S. (Sara) Misner.



The Jim Duncan stage, named to honor past Garden Executive Director Jim Duncan for his accomplishments and the Garden’s rise to prominence during his ten year tenure, was constructed to give Live at the Garden a permanent home and to become a performing arts venue for the community. The stage will also add additional revenue potential for the Garden’s long-term sustainability.

As 2014 came to a close, steps began to renovate the iconic Half Moon Bridge. Once again, the members of Ikebana were instrumental in this project to preserve this recognizable landmark. 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the Seijaku-en and the bridge reconstruction ensured that this Mid-South icon continues to be a focal point for visitors.



In early 2015, John D. Canale III made a significant donation, making the renovation of the Rose Garden possible. The Rose Garden name was changed to the John D. Canale, Jr., Rose Garden to honor John III’s father, and was expanded to provide better access for visitors and increased functionality as the site for weddings and Garden activities.

The family of Jeanne Parham Coors, a past MBG Board President, provided a gift in 2015 that allowed for the development of a Fragrance Garden in her memory. The new garden features beautiful, fragrant flowers such as gardenia, lily of the valley, and anemones.



After decades of hosting seasonal plant sales, the Garden embarked on expanding the Volunteer Greenhouse efforts into a year-round operation. Established Spring 2018, The Nursery at the Garden, located adjacent to the Horticulture Center, provided a place for sales to take place right where the plants are grown. A potting shed was dedicated later that summer giving volunteers a covered place to work.

During the fall of 2018, MBG Horticulture staff began transforming the Nature Photography Garden into an Urban Home Garden. The new area demonstrates innovative approaches to outdoor living. With features such as a working chicken coop, espaliered fruit trees, and edible landscape displays, gardeners are inspired with ideas for making the most out of small spaces and home landscapes.



In 2019, Memphis Botanic Garden launched the Nourish Greenprint 2021 campaign. This dynamic plan provided renovations of the Visitors Center, galleries and restrooms, added signage throughout our collections and displays, made enhancements to three identified gardens, and established funds that will solidify our 96-acre living campus as a leader in engaging, educating and enhancing every generation of our growing Garden community.