History Of Memphis Botanic Garden

compiled by Jim Duncan, FORMER Executive Director


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 compliment 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 species of roses located in this garden. In 2001, a major renovation of the Rose Garden occurred, enhancing the presence of this major Garden attraction.

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.

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 has been 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 green daffodils announce the coming of spring.

The Garden has an impressive Conifer Collection that was added in 1981 and updated in 2002 to include many dwarf varieties that are now available for the home landscape.

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.

A volunteer greenhouse was erected in 1987. It would serve as a meeting place for Garden lovers and those interested in the continued development of the Garden grounds.

In 1988, the Boehm Porcelain Collection was donated to the Garden and displayed in the Goldsmith Civic Garden Center. After several shifts in location, in 2005 the collection was placed in a set of specially lighted cabinets in the Goldsmith foyer. Ladies from the Memphis Garden Club and The Children's Foundation provided funds and leadership for this project.

In 1989, The Little Garden Club, already responsible for cherry tree plantings along Cherry Road, 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.

1996 and 1997 proved to be big years in the development of the Garden, with the establishment of the Four Seasons Garden to compliment the cluster of the Garden's circular fountains. Concurrent  to this was a grant from the National Tree Trust  that provided for the creation of an Urban Orchard. Plum, pear, cherry, jube, fig, and peach trees, interwoven with blueberries, blackberries, wine berries, raspberries, and  strawberries, provide for a beautiful area on the southwest section of the property.

A public daylily collection had been planned since 1962, and several collections had been placed in various sections of the Garden over the years. In 1997, the Daylily Garden was moved to a central location and settled into a garden designed by Kitty Taylor. That same year, the Anne Heard Stokes Butterfly Garden was created on the grounds just east of Daffodil Hill.

In 1996, a major gift from Helen and Jabie Hardin served as the catalyst for the construction of the current Visitor's 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 the area of the Visitor's 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 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.

Recent additions to the Garden occurred when Hosta beds were created in 2002 and the Hosta Society added additional beds in 2004. The Hydrangea Garden was made possible by Mrs. Buzzy Hussey and her family.

The Little Garden Club of Memphis continued their tradition of cherry tree planting, begun in the early 1950's, by replacing some of the original plants and filling in gaps along Cherry Road with 49 additional cherry trees. A wind chime sculpture was added at the entrance to the Sensory Garden in 2005.

2005 also marked the creation of a special bird-feeding area, made possible through a grant from The Junior League Garden Club.

In 2005, plans were unveiled announcing another major gift from Mr. and Mrs. Jabie Hardin. The gift resulted  the construction of a 5,500 square foot service, production, and display 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 2006, the American Hosta Society honored the Hosta Trail at the Garden by officially naming the trail as one of 15 designated American Hosta Trails in the United States. This Hosta Trail is only one of two in the South.  he Mid-South Hosta Society was instrumental in the Garden gaining this honor.

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

In 2006, the Anne Heard Stokes Butterfly Garden received a facelift, and a water feature was added at the east end of this attractive stand-alone garden.

In 2007 the Southwind Garden club added a Panicled Hydrangea Garden adjacent to the Stokes Butterfly Garden, adding to the beauty of this area. That same year the Missie Macdonald Azalea Path extended the current Azalea Trail with the addition of Encore azaleas.

The Hydrangea Society developed a magnificent new Hydrangea Garden with 142 plants directly across from the Hosta Trail, making this area a destination point for garden visitors.

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.

In 2008, in an attempt to broaden community outreach, a Farmers’ Market was started at the garden.  Every Wednesday afternoon from late April through October, hundreds of people visited the Garden's Pine Grove to enjoy the offerings of local growers.

Also in 2008, ground-breaking for the long-awaited Children’s Garden occurred, 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 2009, 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.

As the face of the Garden changed with the addition of My Big Backyard, a new Desert Garden was created, capitalizing on the open areas of the Garden's parking lot. This is a new concept in space utilization that has become popular with public gardens across the U.S.

The Daylily Garden also found a new home, now called Daylily Circle, around the perimeter of the Iris Garden. 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 honor of donors Ann and Robert Blecken. This new pavilion enhanced the newly-created, 142-plant Hydrangea Garden. A restroom/dressing room building was added nearby. The Blecken Pavilion and Hydrangea Garden are now popular destinations for many outdoor weddings.

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 summer of 2010, the Live at the Garden Summer Concert Series completed its 10th year. This popular series had reached a level of being recognized as the summer event of the season in Memphis.

In October 2011, a new .75 acre Herb Garden was created from design by Tom Pellett, Chris Cosby, and Rick Pudwell. 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 new attraction for casual visitors as well as an interactive space for education and herb programs.

2012 marked the opening of the Nature Photography Garden. This is a unique garden designed to attract birds, butterflies and other creatures with light angles and pathways suitable for nature photography.  In addition, the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council awarded the Garden the designation of Urban Forestry Center of Excellence in August, 2012.

In 2012 the Delta Heritage Garden was also 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.

In 2013, the Japanese Maple Garden was transformed into the Asian Garden, which now includes many unique plants, additional Japanese Maples, a water feature, and the Touliatos Trail, in 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, the Sculpture Garden underwent a major renovation spearheaded and funded by the Memphis Garden Club. MBG’s horticulture staff developed a design plan drawing from the classical design tradition that updated the look and feel of this garden while still maintaining a serene and formal space. With assistance from David Lusk, the Memphis Garden Club received an anonymous donation of a significant, large-scale sculpture by Carroll Todd as well as an important Lon Anthony sculpture from the Day Foundation. More sculptures including a bronze urn by Cecil Humphreys, three abstract figure forms by Jim Buchman, another by Greely Myatt, and one by Brian Russell have all been incorporated into the garden design. The new pieces were integrated into the design along with two existing works by Edwin C. “Ted” Rust and John McIntire purchased in the early 1970’s by MGC and one added more recently by Billie Price Carroll. Recently more pieces have been added by Roy Tamboli and Yvonne Bobo.

Also in 2014, a $6.5 million capital campaign made possible a new performing arts venue at the Garden. Included in this venue was a 4750 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 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 The stage was named to honor Garden Executive Director Jim Duncan for his accomplishments and the Garden’s rise to prominence during his ten year tenure.


As 2014 came to a close, steps began to renovate the iconic Red Drum Bridge. Once again, the members of Ikebana were instrumental in this project, through financial and creative support, to preserve this recognizable landmark. 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Seijaku-en, or Japanese Garden of Tranquility, at Memphis Botanic Garden, and the bridge reconstruction will ensure 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. The Rose Garden's current renovation  included a large wedding court that transformed this garden into the perfect place for weddings, meetings, or other private parties. It's also now more horticulturally interesting throughout all seasons, even outside of rose bloom, due to the inclusion of annuals and prennials that are complimentary to roses (companion plants).

In 2016, the Fragrance Garden, in memory of Jeanne Parham Coors and Cristy Coors Beasley, was planted. Jeanne was President of the MBG Board of Directors and members of the Coors family have been long-time supporters of the Garden. This new woodland garden connects the path outside of Prehistoric Plant Trail to the Hydrangea Garden and Blecken Pavilion; creating a logical connection between existing gardens. This Garden winds its way through our Magnolia Grove, providing a season-long, fragrant and shaded respite for garden visitors. This new woodland understory was developed using appropriate plant material and create an inviting naturalist garden walk.

During Fiscal Year 2017, the Garden experienced tremendous growth! To kick off the year, Hardin Hall received a much needed make-over helping to renew interest in this wonderful rental venue. We held our first ever traveling exhibit Big Bugs at the Garden. With this exhibit we hosted over 6,000 school-children and about 30,000 people in total from all corners of our community.  During this year we also introduced Holiday Wonders at the Garden, an expanded version of our popular Snowy Nights in My Big Back Yard. This attraction introduced our Garden to thousands of new visitors! Following the Holidays, we were able to focus on some meaningful horticulture activities such as our new Nursery at the Garden, new Volunteers Potting Shed and the first upgrades and improvements to our Delta Heritage Garden. To bring our fiscal year to a close, we tested a new concert model, Wolf at the Garden, which we plan to grow in the future! 


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