History

The Arboretum was created to serve as a statewide and national resource and cultivator of education, economic development, research, conservation and garden demonstration. Through this role, the Arboretum demonstrates, interprets and celebrates the importance of plants to our world – to our economy, our culture, and to our enjoyment.

The North Carolina Arboretum is a public institution that fulfills its mission at many different levels. From supporting new plant-related sustainable economic sectors, to educating the educator and the public about plants, to serving as a location for natural beauty and connection with the outdoors, the Arboretum elevates the aesthetic, cultural, and economic quality of life in North Carolina.

The Arboretum broadens contemporary expressions of landscape stewardship through conservation of the traditional values, environmental resourcefulness, and botanical mystique of the Southern Appalachian region and its people.
 

A Chronology

Like building a house piece by piece, building an arboretum takes time, patience, raw materials, tools, sound financial backing, and the specific talents of many people. The North Carolina Arboretum has come a staggeringly long way in its brief 20 year history, and the next 20 years promise to prove just as eventful.

 
The idea takes shape...
1898: Frederick Law Olmsted, the "Father of Landscape Architecture," dies after completing the landscape design of his last major project, the Biltmore Estate. His dream of establishing an arboretum on the property was not yet realized.
 
1983: The Western North Carolina Development Association (WNCDA)  supports the establishment of an arboretum to serve the mountain area. The Horticulture Crops Commission of the WNCDA initiates a feasibility study for a mountain arboretum.
 
1984: The Western North Carolina Arboretum, Inc. is established as a nonprofit corporation.
 

1985: The North Carolina General Assembly approves funding for planning. An arboretum site selection committee is formed.

 
The dream becomes a reality…
1986: The Site Selection Committee approves the 426-acre site in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest of the Pisgah National Forest. An initial agreement is executed between the U.S. Forest Service and the state of North Carolina. The NC General Assembly establishes the Arboretum’s governance structure as an affiliated facility of the 16-campus University of North Carolina system, and appropriates $250,000 for the first operating budget. An additional $2.5 million of capital funds is appropriated to build the 25,000 square-foot Education Center. The first Board of Directors meeting is held. Dr. John L. Creech, former Director of the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. is appointed as part-time Interim Director. Cindy Blankenship, is hired as the first Office Assistant (Blankenship is now a veteran employee of the Arboretum working in External Affairs as the Facilities & Special Events Coordinator). A national search for a permanent director is launched.
 
1987: H.F. "Cotton" Robinson is elected as the first Chairman of the Board of Directors. The first tree, a Monarch Birch, Betula maximowicziana, is planted at an Arbor Day ceremony. George Briggs, a North Carolina native and director of the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, is hired as the first permanent Executive Director and still holds this post today. The Arboretum Board of Directors approves the Sasaki and Associates core area development plan within the Concept Master Plan. Archeological and other surveys are completed, and a Native American settlement is discovered with potential for National Register of Historic Places designation.
 
1989: The NC General Assembly renames the institution The North Carolina Arboretum, reflecting the statewide service mandate. The General Assembly also appropriates $1.25 million for initial garden development and continues to recognize the increasing need for operating funds.
 
Construction and garden preparation begins…
1990: The North Carolina Arboretum Society, a nonprofit support organization, is founded. Sixteen new staff positions are added bringing the total from eight to 24 employees.

1991: The Sustainable Landscape Garden along the Support Facility Road is established, demonstrating sustainable and low maintenance landscape plantings along road bank slopes. The first educational series, "Monday Evening Lectures" is inaugurated, and three additional monthly programs are added to meet the demand. The first "Celebration of Wreaths" is held in the Education Center in December with Bent Creek neighbors as special guests. The Volunteer program is established.

1992: The Plants of Promise Garden is established, with the help of grants from the America the Beautiful program and private contributions, and features superior landscape plants appropriate for the Southern Appalachian region. The Arboretum becomes a participating institution with the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC), hosts the CPC meeting and begins propagating selected rare plants for the National Collection of Endangered Plants as well as participating in conservation strategies of the CPC. The Staples family of Butner, NC donates a significant bonsai collection to the Arboretum forming the basis of the current nationally recognized collection.

1993: The Arboretum enters into an agreement with the NC Natural Heritage Program that establishes the French Broad Heartleaf Natural Area on Arboretum grounds. The Arboretum is home to the largest population of this unusual species, endemic to the French Broad River basin. The Arboretum hosts its first national professional conference—the American Botanic Gardens & Arboreta (AABGA) Southeast Regional Meeting with more than 200 delegates in attendance.  The statewide University Improvement Bond referendum passes, netting $2.5 million for the Arboretum's Core Area Garden project. The General Assembly appropriates $2 million.

1994: Groundbreaking is held for the $4.5 million Core Area Garden project. The Arboretum staff enters into partnership with four "mentor" gardens across the U.S. funded by a Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Staff members visited and were, in return, visited by their peers from gardens with national and international reputations to assist in the development of the new Core Garden area.

1995: The National Native Azalea Collection is established on the banks of Bent Creek with a mission to protect, conserve, display and interpret the diversity of deciduous azaleas native to North America. Executive Director George Briggs is installed as President of the American Association of Botanic Gardens & Arboreta (AABGA). A Recreational User Group Task Force is established to advise Arboretum staff about issues important to mountain bikers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
 
Gardens, programs and attendance blossom…
1996: Construction is completed of the Core Area Gardens consisting of the Stream, Quilt, and Spring Gardens, as well as the Blue Ridge Court and phase one of the Outdoor Events Amphitheater. The first seasonal color display is installed.
 
1997: A grant is awarded from the U.S. EPA for design and preliminary construction of the Heritage Garden showcasing plants used in the craft industry in Western North Carolina. A connector trail featuring a well-crafted steel bridge and stonework now enables hikers and bikers to make an uninterrupted three-mile "Owl Ridge Trail" loop. A major restructuring of Arboretum staff and projects begins based on recommendations of a professional review team that includes directors of three nationally prominent gardens and members of North Carolina's State personnel offices. Staff and managers align themselves within four major divisions: Horticulture, Public Programs, Development and General Services.
 
1998: Frederick Law Olmsted Way, the new one-mile Arboretum entrance that provides easy access from the Blue Ridge Parkway, is dedicated exactly 100 years following Olmsted's death. A Strategic Planning Committee under the leadership of Board of Directors member Todd Morse and Director of Development Linda Wilkerson begins work on new mission and vision statements and planning for the next five years.
 
1999: Design work begins for the new Bonsai Display Garden to be located adjacent to the Main Entry Plaza. Phase one of the Heritage Garden is complete, and design and fundraising for phase two, begin. The North Carolina Arboretum Five-Year Strategic Plan is completed and launched. A Volunteer Liaison Committee is established to assist Arboretum staff in addressing the needs and suggestions of the more than 180 volunteers.
 
2000: A partnership is established to create The Plant Professional Landscape Garden as a training and testing site for the Certified Plant Professional and the Certified Landscape Technician programs. The Wachovia Nursery is designated as the official site to house the Arboretum’s endangered species plant collection. The Arboretum also hosts the International Oak Conference under the leadership of Natural Science Curator and International Oak Society president-elect Ron Lance. The Arboretum dedicates the first weather station as part of a 500-station national Climate Reference Network, in partnership with the National Climatic Data Center of NOAA. The North Carolina Arboretum is approved for $9.3 million in capital projects through an Education Bond Referendum overwhelmingly supported by NC voters.
 
2001: Work begins on the design and construction of the five capital projects funded through the Education Bonds including the Baker Exhibition Center, Operations Support Facility, Gatehouses at the Arboretum’s Two Primary Entrances, and the installation of Main Entrance Road Utilities.

2007: The Baker Exhibit Center opens on June 22, 2007. The facility functions as the primary welcome and orientation center for more than 250,000 Arboretum visitors annually. A watercolor exhibit titled “Around the World: Places, People and Plants ~ Watercolor by Ann Vasilik” debuts in the new building and runs through October 31, 2007. The opening of the Baker Exhibit Center significantly improves visitor experiences by providing strong and diverse orientation and education during all four seasons. Funding of the Baker Exhibit Center is the result of a public/private partnership. The building was made possible in part by the Higher Education Bond Referendum, approved by the residents of North Carolina in 2000. In addition, private donors contributed funds through a campaign titled “Cultivating A Living Treasure: A Campaign for The North Carolina Arboretum.” Within its 16,373 square feet, the building houses the Arboretum’s information center as well as a garden-level exhibit hall that showcases traveling art and science-based exhibits from around the nation. A 900 square-foot greenhouse opens on the garden level of the Baker Exhibit Center. The grounds surrounding the Baker Exhibit Center will cover up to 15 acres and will feature contemporary concepts for cultivated landscapes in the mountains.

2009: There is a flurry of activity outside the Baker Exhibit Center this spring as the surrounding landscape undergoes site improvement. The landscape project is more than two years in the making, and is intended to repair and renovate the garden areas that were impacted by construction of the Baker Exhibit Center, which opened in fall 2007. Funding for the landscape project has been earmarked for the past two years from a private and state-funded repair and renovation account, and after an extensive RFP process the Arboretum awarded a contract to AMC of Arden to complete the project. By awarding the contract to a local general contractor and subcontractors from North Carolina, the landscape project fuels the local economy and stimulates growth during hard economic times. The anticipated completion date is by mid-summer and will reveal a beautiful, functional landscape.