Huntsville Botanical Garden

The Huntsville Botanical Garden in Huntsville, Madison County, is a 112-acre public garden that opened in 1988 and is one of the most visited attractions in the state. It is known for its open-air butterfly garden and Butterfly House and numerous yearly events and educational programs. The garden has received numerous awards, including being named as one of the Top 10 Best Botanical Gardens for Families in 2015 and being ranked as one of the Top 10 tourist attractions in Alabama by attendance, according to the Alabama Tourism Department.

Damson Aquatic Garden The Huntsville Botanical Garden (HBG) was a result of the efforts of the Huntsville-Madison County Botanical Garden Society, which was formed in 1979 and incorporated in 1980 to establish a botanical garden in Huntsville. The land upon which the garden was created was originally part of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and is located near the northeast corner of the Rocket Center. The land consisted of forest, meadows, and a bog and was leased to the city by the U.S. Army through the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission. A concept plan was formed by Harbarger Landscape Design, Inc., in 1983 and in October 1985 a southern magnolia was planted to celebrate the groundbreaking by local dignitaries. A master plan for the 112 acres was developed by Environmental Planning and Design, a firm from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1988, the Garden Guild, a nonprofit volunteer organization, was formed to support the HBG through fundraising, educational activities, and providing volunteers for garden-related projects. The garden officially opened on May 21 that year. A fundraising effort was launched in the early 1990s to raise $1.5 million for a research facility and other improvements.

The garden’s collections are divided into two broad categories. The “display collection” includes the Four Seasons Display Garden, the Butterfly Garden, the Dogwood Trail, the Herb Garden, the Mathews Nature Trail, the Holmes Trillium Garden, the Bush Azalea Trail, and the Daylily Garden. The Four Seasons Garden includes various perennials and annuals and an aquatic garden. The Herb Garden includes culinary, medicinal, and fragrance herbs in various sections such as the Butterfly Garden, Biblical Garden, Tea Plants, and Heart Healthy Plants. The “botanical collection” consists of species and hybrids suitable for the north Alabama region, such as magnolias, native hydrangeas, rhododendrons, trilliums, camellias, and others.

Purdy Butterfly House The 9,000-square-foot Nature Center overlooking Smith Lake is home to various native species, including butterflies, tadpoles, frogs, and turtles. This area is also home to the largest open-air butterfly house in the nation, the Purdy Butterfly House. The nearby two-acre Children’s Garden includes a replica dinosaur fossil, a Space Station, a storybook garden, a bamboo garden, and a half-acre wooded area. The Demonstration Vegetable Garden spotlights traditional row-gardening, wide-row gardening, raised-bed gardens, and a square-foot garden. Thousands of pounds of produce from this garden are donated to local organizations to help feed the needy every year. In October 2006, the HBG created the Garden of Hope, which provides a place where cancer patients and their families can design, plant, and maintain gardens for personal therapy and recovery.

The Huntsville Botanical Garden is home to numerous nature trails. The Dogwood Trail winds through one of the garden’s forests, serving as a habitat for flowering dogwood trees, azaleas, hostas, and camellias. The Mathews Nature Trail includes a network of foot paths showcasing indigenous trees such as black gum, red maple, and sycamore as well as various ferns, vines, shrubs, and herbaceous plants indigenous to the Southeast. Within the Mathews Trail System is the Holmes Trillium Garden, which includes thousands of trilliums in several major collections.

Bush AzaleaTrail The Huntsville Botanical Garden offers several tours and programs throughout the year. The Butterfly Tour runs from May through September and offers visitors the chance to learn about using plants to attract butterflies to their own gardens. The year-round Birding Tour teaches visitors about the various birds that call the garden home. For children, the garden hosts weekly story and craft times called “Wacky Wednesdays,” a Firefly Night Hike through the garden, and various camps and classes for children from kindergarten through 5th grade. In addition, the garden celebrates five seasonal festivals. In January and February, the Beaks and Barks festival allows visitors to bring their dogs to the garden to walk the Lewis Birding Trail. In March and April, the Huntsville Blooms festival features spring-blooming trees, shrubs, and perennials and offers specialized programming and activities related to the season. From May through September, the Purdy Butterfly House opens to visitors. From September to October, the Scarecrow Trail opens and includes visitor-created displays of scarecrows as well as weekend hayrides. The year is capped off in November and December with the Galaxy of Lights, an annual lights display festival featuring more than 150 hand-crafted displays.

Guest Welcome Center In March 2017, the Garden held a ribbon-cutting for its new Guest Welcome Center, a 3,500-square-foot, $12 million facility that includes three rental facilities, a gift shop, a cafe, and meeting rooms. Each year, the Huntsville Botanical Garden welcomes approximately 350,000 visitors. Currently, the Huntsville Botanical Garden employs approximately 35 individuals and has more than 2,600 active volunteers. More than half of the revenue is generated through admissions, gift shop sales, program and event fees, and facility rental fees with the rest coming from membership sales, sponsorships, contributions, and appropriations from local government. The garden is governed by 32-member board of directors and an advisory council composed of 15 permanent positions and 15 elected members, all from a variety of professions and governmental positions.

Further Reading

  • Harbarger, Harvilee Phillips. “The Huntsville Madison County Botanical Garden 1979-1997.” Huntsville Historical Review 24 (Summer-Fall 1997): 1-10.

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