Through the visionary leadership of Mary Pat Matheson, Atlanta Botanical Garden has transformed into an iconic, landmark attraction enjoyed by the entire city, as well as a must-see destination for visitors. In 2002, Mary Pat joined the garden as president and chief executive officer, bringing her expertise and infectious enthusiasm. From concert series to special exhibitions to the wintertime extravaganza Garden Lights, Holiday Nights, Matheson has developed some of the biggest events ever to grace the garden and has guided its greatest period of expansion. Mary, Mary, how you’ve helped our garden grow and grow and grow!
How did you find your way to Atlanta?
I grew up in Bethesda, MD, but had a burning desire to go to college in the Rocky Mountains. The nature girl in me just wanted to see that part of the country, so I moved to Utah and stayed for 30 years. I basically fell in love with the mountains and a man (my husband of 37 years). I landed in Atlanta in 2002 because of a very tenacious headhunter who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Truly, she convinced me to visit Atlanta after a month of resistance on my part. After that, it was the garden and the quality of the board and staff that brought me here. It’s been a wild ride, and I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished in almost 12 years. The garden has grown into one of Atlanta’s top cultural attractions, and we’ve built over $60 million of new facilities and gardens.
What has most surprised you about living in the South?
That my husband and I would choose to retire here! We fully expected to return to the Rocky Mountains. Now we find that we love the trees, beautiful flora, city, weather and people.
When did you develop your passion for gardening?
Actually, I’m not much of a gardener. My husband is. But I was introduced to the love of plants and gardens at a young age by my father and my best friend’s father, Mr. White. My dad loved his azaleas and also planted cherry trees along our entire neighborhood when we moved there when I was 3. Every spring our streets burst into bloom with cascades of white blossoms — it’s just dreamy still to this day. Mr. White had the best veggie garden and peach trees, which my best friend and I raided at every chance. You could say I was born into it, and I still love cherry trees, azaleas and peaches.
What are your greatest source of project inspirations?
The gardens of Europe, such as Kew, inspire us all. But I also love the “gardener’s garden” and seek inspiration from that most of all. Our Garden for Connoisseurs Tour, for example, on Mother’s Day weekend (this is its thirtieth year) always includes beautiful and inspiring gardens that the owners have designed and nurtured. They showcase the most amazing plants, garden walls and tender love that one could ever ask to see.
My current inspiration comes from the Quebec garden of the late Frank Cabot, called Les Quatre Vents. It’s only open four times a year, and we were able to see it last fall. Simply stunning. The design carefully frames views of mountain meadows and water, the delphiniums are seven feet tall, and the entire experience is comprised of the most beautiful garden rooms I’ve ever seen. It’s the influence for our newest project, the Gardens of Storza Woods.
Who have been your most-valued teachers and mentors? What advice have you been given that you pass along to others?
One of my favorite teachers was a high school biology teacher who challenged me and connected me to the living world. She opened my eyes to how nature works — plants, animals and the substance of life. My mentor was the vice president at the University of Utah, Ted Capener, to whom I reported while there. He believed in me, provided guidance, but, most importantly, was a big thinker and encouraged me to think big and think outside the envelope. Ted encouraged “calculated risk,” which is unusual in a university environment. That would be my advice to others — when you are in a leadership role, you have to be willing to take measured risks to grow your organization. Think big, gather the facts, look to other models of success and be willing to take measured risk for big return. That’s a core component of my philosophy on leadership.
Do you have a cherished spot within the Atlanta Botanical Garden?
That depends on the day and season. I love the orchid center, especially the low-elevation house where we display thousands of tropical orchids from around the world. The orchids are so colorful and diverse, and the tropical mist and streaming sunlight are just magical, especially in winter. I also love to stand on the Canopy Walk, watch for the red-tailed hawks and look down on the Earth Goddess, our 25-foot sculpture that is planted May through October. Her serene smile is so Mona Lisa to me, and she just graces the garden with her beauty. That spot on the Canopy Walk is the “wow” place. That’s what visitors say upon viewing the Goddess for the first time.
Is there a particular type of plant or style of gardening that intrigues you more than others?
I’m intrigued by orchids; they are the largest group of flowering plants and are incredibly diverse (35,000 species in the wild). Some mimic the insects that pollinate them, while others entice bees to pollinate them through fragrance and voluptuousness. If anyone wants to understand the fragile web of life, come see our 2,000 species of wild orchids and learn about their connections to pollinators — bees, wasps, moths. I wish that everyone in Atlanta would visit the Fuqua Orchid Center to enjoy what I see every day, but I also wish everyone would come here so they can learn that plants are the foundation of all life. They are so important to every living thing, but they are so threatened in our world today.
What hobbies do you enjoy?
I rarely dig in the dirt, but I love the garden and enjoy the fruits of my husband’s labor. My other hobby is riding horses. I have a horse, Dublin, who is boarded in Athens. We spend most weekends there and are even building our dream house there on 25 acres. In my spare time, I love to cook.
What’s been your most memorable vacation?
My husband and I were in New Zealand in October for a world botanical garden conference and a vacation. New Zealand is a stunning country with beautiful and unusual plants and birds. We encountered blue penguins, albatross, glaciers, magnificent forests and tree ferns and some fantastic wineries. It was one of our best vacations ever. Our next big travel idea is a combination of Italy and Iceland — talk about strange bedfellows! I just love Italy, and my husband really wants to visit Iceland, so we will combine our interests and do both.
What are some of your favorite Atlanta spots for shopping and dining?
I’m a bit of a foodie, so I love going over to Star Provisions and the west side of Atlanta for great dining. I just love the view to the city and the exciting growth taking place there. And like so many, my new favorite outing is to walk through Piedmont Park to the Beltline to enjoy the new “walkability” of Atlanta. You know, the Garden/Piedmont Park/Beltline are all connected and are the green center of Atlanta!
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I love a wonderful glass of Sancerre wine from France. My favorite treat is dinner out — I just love going with friends and family. Atlanta has some amazing restaurants; we’ve gotten to be like New York. Athens has many great restaurants, too, so we always have a big Sunday brunch after riding horses. That’s a perfect weekend.
What’s on your personal reading list?
Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, The Signature of All Things. I love it because the book is about a taxonomist who studies mosses. How fantastic to find a novel about a woman’s life and challenges, and about how enriched her life is because of her study of plants. It’s beautifully detailed, interesting, surprising and just a great read.
Name three things you cannot live without, other than faith, family and friends.
- My dogs, Hudson and Sedona
- My horse, Dublin (there’s a theme here)
- The Atlanta Botanical Garden
Thank you, Mary Pat. Atlanta Botanical Garden certainly makes our list of local Atlanta treasures, and we are so grateful for your loving guidance and expertise.
Once again, we thank our talented FACES photographer, Cat Maxwell, for her gorgeous shots: catmaxphotography.com