History of UBC Botanical Garden

With a history spanning almost a century, UBC Botanical Garden & Centre for Plant Research has continually maintained a valued position within the University and the community at large. With a world class facility spanning 78 acres and an everlasting commitment to perpetuating biodiversity through education and research, it comes as no surprise that the garden has come to achieve a high profile within the local, national, and even international media circuits. 

The UBC Botanical Garden was founded in 1916. Its creator and first director was John Davidson (1878-1970) from Aberdeen, Scotland, who was apprenticed to the university’s modelmaker in 1893. He was a self-taught botanist and eventually held the post of botanist and curator of the Botany Museum at the University of Aberdeen until 1911. Mr Davidson arrived in Vancouver in 1911 and was appointed to the post of Provincial Botanist. His two main tasks were to make a complete survey of the BC flora, and to establish a botanical garden and herbarium of native plants. He enlisted the help of almost 200 correspondents, ranchers, prospectors, surveyors and teachers in addition to making many collecting trips himself. In this way he soon acquired a collection of live native plants, and was given 0.8 hectares (2 acres) on the Colony Farm at Essondale in 1912 as a temporary botanical garden. By 1914 there were over 700 species of native plants in this garden, with one gardener (Mr L van der Born) in charge.

The Provincial Botanical Office was abolished in 1916 as one of the economic measures caused by World War I and the herbarium and botanical garden were transferred to UBC. The University site on point Grey was still almost entirely covered in brush at that time and the University was housed in temporary buildings about 12 km (7.5 miles) away. John Davidson was not discouraged, and arranged for the laborious clearing and preparing of 34 hectares (85 acres) of land on Point Grey. Teams of men and horses felled and burned trees, drained and graded the land, and hauled away stumps and boulders. Most of the cleared land was designated as an experimental farm, but 2 hectares (5 acres) to the west end of the site were set aside for the botanical garden. A cabin in the nearby woods provided a temporary home for Mr van der Born, the gardener, and his family. The move from Essondale to Point Grey began in the fall of 1916 and was completed in 1917. Over 25,000 plants (about 900 species) were transported by truck over the 40 km (25 miles) from Essondale.

John Davidson had joined the UBC faculty in 1916 as an instructor in Botany and he drew up an ambitious plan for the garden, which had education as its main function. He designed a series of systematic beds in which all the herbaceous species of the province could be arranged, family by family. Deciduous and evergreen native trees and shrubs were to be planted on each side of the beds. In 1920 a visiting professor from the University of Chicago praised the gardens as being second only in Canada to the Botanical Garden at Ottawa, and called their setting “matchless”.

The University moved to buildings on Point Grey in 1925 and the Botanical Garden began to fulfil its functions as a teaching and research resource. An alpine garden (or "rock-slide garden" as Davidson called it) was constructed using stone left over from the building of the Main Library. The rock slide garden was a 1.8 m (6 feet) high bank, which stretched for 120 m (400 feet) along what is now West Mall. It contained an impressive collection of alpine and dryland native plants placed in pockets between the boulders, and was watered in a rather novel way. A row of drain tiles was buried about 15-30 cm (6-12") deep in the soil at the top of the bank and was filled with water by hose about once a week. The water then gradually seeped down among the plants without causing any soil erosion. There is now no trace of this rockery which was in the area now occupied by the Ponderosa Cafeteria and Ponderosa Offices, although a small piece of it was still in existence in 1969 when it was finally demolished.

The rapid growth of the University through the 1920’s was abruptly curtailed in 1929 with the start of the Great Depression. However, the Garden survived even though there were only two full-time employees, Miss M Gruchie (originally hired in 1912 as the "office staff") and Mr Ernest Schwanje who had replaced Mr van der Born as gardener. A student was hired part-time during the summer to cut the grass. John Davidson apparently spent a lot of time going to Victoria, "cap in hand", to plead for money to keep the garden in operation - a process that was repeated in slightly different form some 50 years later!

By 1938, the Garden consisted of the systematic beds, native arboretum, nursery, medicinal beds, rock garden, salicetum (willow collection), various display areas and an aquatic garden. To the east of the aquatic garden was the Japanese Memorial Garden, which adjoined the Botanical Garden but was not part of it. This garden, completed in 1935, was designed by UBC landscape architect Dr John Neill and developed by a team of Japanese gardeners. Although the Botanical Garden was affected by World War II, it survived these years relatively unchanged.

a place of mind, The University of British Columbia

UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research
6804 SW Marine Drive, Vancouver, B.C., V6T 1Z4
Tel: 604.822.3928
Fax: 604.822.2016 Email: garden.info@ubc.ca

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