History of the Mobile Botanical Gardens

Horticulture and gardening have always been a part of Mobile’s life.

The French who came to found the city had instructions from Louis XIV to collect and send back botanical specimens, and Iberville, busy with the establishment of a great new colony for the glory of France, was careful to obey his King’s instructions. When Mobile was laid out at its present site, one of the first things done was plant a double row of trees around the esplanade to provide a shady walk.

Vegetables from France grew in kitchen gardens, and early in our city’s history it was possible to gather at short notice the ingredients for the same salad one might order in Paris.

A plan of Mobile published in 1765 shows several small formal gardens with walks and parterres laid out in a fashionable European style. Most of these were probably herb gardens, but some seem to have been purely ornamental.

In 1777 William Bartram spent more than three months in and out of Mobile collecting “growing roots, seeds, and curious speciments,” which he shipped to Philadelphia to be added to his collection.

Visitors to Mobile in the 1820’s wrote of the “villas” along the bay shore, where luxuriant gardens were enclosed by hedges of Cherokee roses.

Ship manifests of the 1830’s show that large cargoes of camellias were consigned to purchasers in Mobile.

During the Civil War, one of the great laments of the populace was that the avenues of oaks which graced the suburban estates had to be destroyed when the city’s fortifications were erected.

In the 1870’s and 80’s missionaries from Mobile to China took live oak acorns with them and planted groves which still flourish there. They brought back to Mobile the tallow and camphor tree which are so familiar along our city’s streets.

And so it has been, down through our history for more than two hundred and seventy-five years.

(Extract from a brochure printed in 1977 by the South Alabama Botanical & Horticultural Society for fundraising purposes)

Founding members who lead the Society through its organization were:

Tom Dodd, Jr – President and General Manager, Tom Dodd Nursery
Harry F. (Pat) Ryan – Assissant Landscape Engineer, Bellingrath Gardens
Max P. McGill – Landscape Engineer, Springhill College
John H. Bowen – Landscape Architect, U.S. Army Engineers
Ira V. Matthews – Assistant to the President, Mobile College
Floyd T. McConnell – General Counsel, Mobile Engineer District, U.S. Army Engineers
Dr. Michel G. LeLong – Professor of Botany, University of South Alabama
Edward J. (Bud) Horder – Ornamental Horticulturist, U.S. Army Engineers

1970 South Alabama Horticultural & Botanical Society incorporated

1974 Society agrees to develop and manage 100 acres as a Botanical Garden; City of Mobile leases 100 acres to the Society

1976 Mobile Botanical Gardens dedicated

1976 First Annual Plant Sale at the home of Floyd & Millie McConnell

1979 Founders’ Fragrance & Texture Garden established

1979 Hurricane Frederic

1980 Flooding created Kudzu Canyon / washed-out road and field

1981 Shropshire Nature Trail established

1982-83 Fall Plant Sale & Preview Party tradition established by Lily Woolford & Susie Dodd

1993 Master Gardener volunteers begin Greenhouse production

1993 Gallery of Gardens Tours established by Lily Woolford & Thayer Dodd

1994 Education Programs established by Liz Duthie

1996 Herb Garden established with Gulf Coast Herb Society

1997 New Greenhouse built

2002 Larkins Center Grand Opening celebrated in October

2003 Second Saturday series of horticulture programs established

2004 Master Gardeners’ Presidents began serving one year term on Board of Directors

2005 John Allen Smith Memorial Japanese Maple Garden Grand Opening celebrated in November

2006 Millie McConnell Rhododendron Garden replanted and expanded with new collections

2007 Camellia WinterGarden established

2007 Presidents of Gulf Coast Herb Society began serving one year term on Board of Directors

2010 The Longleaf Pine Forest was designated a “Treasure Forest” by the Alabama Forestry Commission

2014 The Kosaku Sawada WinterGarden was named a “Garden of Excellence” by the International Camellia Society (will open in new tab)

2015 Fundraising campaign for the Aromi Native Azalea Collection completed. They will be planted in Fall 2015