A Visit to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens
The Birmingham Botanical Gardens offer a large variety of plant species as well as educational programs for class field trips.Situated in a quiet setting adjacent to the Birmingham Zoo and near the rolling fairways of the Birmingham Country Club, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens cast a beautiful image of lush environments and long standing green spaces within the sprawling 67.5 acre site. During a recent visit to the Gardens, we were astonished by all that the Gardens offer—not only to the general public, but also for teachers and students.Last year marked the Gardens’ 50th anniversary as they continue to be Alabama’s largest living museum and most visited free attraction with more than 350,000 visitors annually. The Botanical Gardens offers programs and classes targeted at a wide range of audiences from school age children to seniors. In fact, over 10,000 school children are served through free science curriculum-based field trips each year with entertaining and informative programming like The Secret Life of Trees.
The Secret Life of Trees offers an engaging discovery for preschoolers by which they discover the life cycle of a tree, investigate a fallen log and actually complete a tree ring count using tree cookies. For older students, the Native American field trip teaches Native American farming methods and identifies the varieties of plants they used for food, medicine, ceremonies, travel and shelters. Another popular program is the Dr. George Washington Carver field trip. Students examine Dr. Carver’s life and his unique contributions to science by harvesting peanuts, sweet potatoes and cotton grown at the Gardens to take back to their classrooms. The selection and diversity of field trip programs are numerous, and most teachers would find it challenging to select just one!
In their live collection, the Botanical Gardens is home to over 12,000 species of plants. The Gardens also partner with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System to provide a plant diagnostic laboratory and expert gardening help. Through this program, over 3,000 pounds of fresh produce is produced and donated to Magic City Harvest, a non-profit charity, to help feed thousands in the Birmingham area each year. It’s no surprise that the largest public horticulture library and the largest clear-span conservatory in the Southeast are at the Gardens—just walking through the library was an educational experience!
Opened to the public in 2008, the library is home to Archives and a Rare Book Room filled with historical items found nowhere else. The collection of rare books includes maps and garden plans, antique seed catalogs, and historic Works Progress Administration (WPA) records. In its time, the WPA was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency that employed millions of people to plan, develop and construct a myriad of public works projects.
At that time, virtually every community in the United States had a new park, a bridge, or a school constructed by the agency. Within the WPA records are documents relating to local parks and other projects completed, from a time when communities were in dire need of community-focused endeavors. The library’s diverse–perhaps eclectic–collection is also home to other interesting and educational items like personal plant press books, plant fossils, and even Japanese tea ceremony items. The Gardens feature over 30 thematic areas categorized into three gardens: the Gardens of Collections which focuses on a specific genus, family or other identified group (such as the Asian Glade), the Gardens of Nature which focuses on native plants of the southeastern United States (such as the Kaul Wildflower Garden), and the Gardens of Culture which focuses on a particular design style or an aspect of human culture (such as the Bruno Vegetable Garden, the Enabling Garden and the Japanese Garden). All Gardens are interconnected with beautiful walking paths that guide you from one garden to the next.
Educationally speaking, one of the most exciting and promising current projects of the Gardens is the Freedom Oaks project. Initiated in 2009, the Freedom Oaks project is based on an effort to reforest urban areas with a past and future purpose.
The concept is to re-introduce the original, indigenous species that were once present prior to the residential and commercial presence that replaced original flora species with whatever seemed fashionable or trendy at that particular time. The concept of having a nursery (of sorts) for original species, and then replacing them to their original habitat is pioneering.Through the efforts of the Gardens’ botanists, Freedom Oaks have been placed at their old home sites and in other areas of the city. From acorn to sapling, the trees grown at the Gardens are donated to these reforestation projects. We were duly impressed with the effort to return these original species to their historic habitats.
You can find botanical gardens in most any part of the country. As we experienced, botanical gardens provide much more than beautiful landscapes and seasonal flora highlights. Botanical gardens have a mission to sustain, inform and educate so that we all can take part in appreciating the environment. Students of all ages and of every learning style can be engaged by experiencing the life of plants at all levels.