By: Robin Krchak, Executive Director, Mobile Botanical Gardens
"The city of Mobile sits in the middle
of the biologically richest part of North America."
E. O. Wilson, American Naturalist, summing up the significance of where we live.
Mobile Botanical Gardens began over 50 years ago with a vision and a big dream. A handful of horticulturists persuaded city leaders to set aside 65 acres of the watershed land around Municipal Park Lake (which was the old Springhill Water Works) for future generations. They proposed a concept of protecting and preserving horticultural collections, both native and cultivated, not as a park – but as a botanical garden. It was a gamble on the part of the city to hand over management of city owned land to a group of well-meaning volunteers -- but the people who started this place knew how to work hard and they were passionate about fulfilling the vision.
When that small group of horticulturists got the news that they were in charge of creating a forever asset for the future generations of Mobile...with no staff and no money... there was likely a moment of "What do we do now?!" Not unlike the current staff and volunteers of MBG, those early hardworking people found their answer to that question by simply taking the next right step. And then another.
Over the course of five decades the Gardens increased from 65 acres to 106 in management. Numerous area plantsmen committed to enhancing the quality of collections at Mobile Botanical Gardens such that we now house world-class collections of camellias, rhododendrons, Japanese maples, and Asian magnolias. We also manage one of the largest fire-maintained longleaf forest in an urban setting in the US.
In addition to being the repository for significant plant collections, MBG committed to growing the hard-to-find plants that thrive in our Gulf Coast climate. We built greenhouses and propagation fields. As part of our mission to provide Mobile and this region with the plants that will succeed here, twice annually we coordinate the largest plant sales on the Gulf Coast.
Even as MBG grew in size, national horticultural significance, and in community relevance, it was a challenge for Mobile Botanical Gardens to keep the doors open. We lacked baseline operational funding to maintain the buildings and grounds. In September 2019, we reached the lowest of lows and the Gardens was on the brink of closing. Many will recall the uproar from folks near and far – they didn’t know how bad things were until it was almost too late. Many Mobilians took the time to write council members and the mayor, to speak to friends and neighbors to encourage involvement, to volunteer and help in any way possible.
Since the fall of 2019, the next right steps have been taken. We have developed the largest membership in the history of the Gardens and an operational support agreement was reached with the City of Mobile in March 2021. With the operational support in place, an ever-growing endowment was created in June 2021, providing programming funds for the Gardens in perpetuity. The Gardens' success story happened because so many in this community worked to secure its future. We have all brought this treasure so far. Thank you, Mobile.
The vision for the future of Mobile Botanical Gardens is to continue to embrace our mission to protect, preserve and present the beautiful collections of the 106 acres. MBG serves as a living classroom and as a place that encourages understanding where we live. As a community, we should allow that mission to define the exceptional asset located in the heart of Mobile. Come here to grow!
Current MBG Board President Stephen E. Clements gives this assessment of MBG’s bright future:
“After the Mobile community rallied behind the Gardens when times got tough, the trajectory of our fundraising, our educational endeavors and our upgrades to the Garden's hardscapes and landscapes have been remarkable. Thanks to the efforts of Mayor Stimpson and Gina Gregory, along with James Barber, Flo Kessler, and the entire City Council, the Gardens now receives annual funding that has long been needed. Our working relationship with Matt Anderson, who heads up the City's Civic and Cultural Affairs Department, continues to be the bright spot in our City/Gardens partnership. Because of the City's willingness to step up, we were able to establish the Wayne Denson McRae endowment for the Gardens through the Community Foundation of South Alabama. With funds from Mr. McRae's estate and dozens of additional donors we are quickly creating an endowment that will benefit the Gardens in perpetuity. The Board invites the community to our ‘One Enchanted Evening’ event on April 7 to celebrate the present and future of the Mobile Botanical Gardens.”