Birmingham Botanical Gardens is a Magic City treasure doing great things for the betterment of the city by raising awareness for the importance of plant conservation. We talk with the new Director of Education and Visitor Experience, Brooke McMinn, about the programs that the Botanical Gardens offer, the amazing strides being made in plant conservation and, most importantly, why this work matters so much.
Whenever a visitor experiences the verdant beauty of Birmingham’s Botanical Gardens for the first time, Brooke McMinn likes to ask them a specific question — “Who does this garden belong to?”
The answer, Brooke says, varies. If she’s asking an elementary student who has come to tour the garden on a class field trip, she might be told that the garden belongs to the United States President. Others will guess the city of Mountain Brook, given the garden’s close proximity.
“I tell them this garden belongs to them. It’s Birmingham’s garden,” says Brooke, who serves as the garden’s director of education and visitor experience. “This is their space, and they can come anytime they want to. That’s really the message we try to get across.”
The result of a successful public-private partnership between the City of Birmingham and the nonprofit Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Birmingham Botanical Gardens is a beautiful representation of the vast plant species that abound throughout Alabama. The Gardens teem with lush plant life. Thirty thematic gardens — like the Crape Myrtle Garden and the Ireland Old-Fashioned Rose Garden — dot the the 67.5 acres that make up Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
What most folks don’t realize, Brooke says, is that Alabama is blessed with some of the most diverse plant species in the world.
“We love to brag about being number one in a lot of things, especially football, but this is also something we can be very proud of,” says Brooke, who has always had a deep penchant for the outdoors. Much of her childhood was spent helping her grandmother tend to heirloom roses and tomatoes that grew in abundance on the family property.
“Because Alabama’s biodiversity is so rich, it’s important that locals take note of the greenery that surrounds them — and work to preserve it,” Brooke says.
By partnering with local community groups and government agencies, Birmingham Botanical Gardens has launched several conservation initiatives meant to ensure that the city’s endemic plant species can continue to thrive, even in the midst of rapid urban growth. Engaging in propagation, field work, education and greenhouse work are just some of the ways they are conserving and growing Birmingham’s native plant species like Sugar Maples, White Oaks and Brooke’s personal favorite, Black Gum trees.
Programs and Events at The Gardens
One of The Gardens’ most popular programs is the Centennial Tree Project. Native trees (most of which are more than 100 years old, hence the project’s name) define the character of neighborhoods and the “feel” of city parks. They’ve adapted to local soils and climate, giving them a stronger chance for survival.
By growing these native trees at The Gardens, then re-planting them in public spaces, the program is growing Birmingham’s chances of staying green — literally. Since 2014, approximately 1,500 native tree seedlings have been planted on about 15 sites in the Birmingham metro area.
“One of the best things that we can do for ourselves now, and for future generations, is to get as much green crammed into the city as we can,” Brooke says. “That’s going to help clean the air and it’s going to help clean the water as well.” By absorbing rainwater, trees can have a great economic impact by mitigating costs spent on runoff issues, Brooke points out.
“You can look back at old pictures of Birmingham and see kids playing in floods on 5th Avenue North, out in their swimsuits,” Brooke says. “When we reduce vegetation and cover more areas with impervious surfaces like concrete and blacktop, then we have greater stormwater problems.”
Since its inception, The Gardens has led several other initiatives meant to educate the public on the importance of plant life. Offering a variety classes that range from beginner-level basics to more complex teachings, Birmingham Botanical Gardens is doing its part to grow local plant knowledge.
Perhaps one of The Gardens’ most notable and highly anticipated annual events, the Antiques at The Gardens — which will take place October 4 through 7 — helps raise funds for the Gardens’ many educational programs. Since its inception in 2006, the event has raised more than $4.6 million for The Gardens. Featuring some of the most creative tastemakers, architects, interior designers and landscape designers from throughout the region and nation, the event attracts countless locals and visitors each year looking to shop the artfully curated vignettes of artists, jewelers and antiques dealers, among others. Visitors also attend workshops, panel discussions, lectures, cocktail hours and, of course, the highly anticipated annual gala, kicking off the stylish weekend.
Through events like this, Birmingham Botanical Gardens is able to fund a plethora of programs like family yoga in the gardens, master gardener classes and workshops & classes that cater to all ages and demographics.
Because the space serves as “Birmingham’s Garden,” Brook says The Gardens champions a spirit of inclusivity. All ages and backgrounds are welcome to enjoy the gardens, she says.
“From the casual visitor who may just want to take a stroll in a pretty place on a nice day to a maybe more engaged visitor who is coming and taking some of our more sophisticated classes or our volunteers, the gardens are for everyone,” Brooke says.
For those looking to grow a deeper understanding of Birmingham’s plant life, The Gardens offers Native Plant Studies — a program that introduces participants to botany, ecology, conservation and other uses of native Southeastern flora. And for younger visitors, The Gardens offers Plant Adventures Programs, meant to expose children to the joys of nature. From hands-on activities to seasonal botanical explorations, the Plant Adventures Programs are the perfect way to expose little ones to the beauty that abounds not only at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, but everywhere in nature.
As a new season approaches, Brooke encourages folks to come out to Birmingham’s garden, saying, “We’re free, we’re family-friendly, we’re easy to get to and we are Birmingham’s garden.”
For more information on Birmingham Botanical Gardens and to secure your tickets to the upcoming Antiques at the Gardens on October 4-7, 2018, visit bbgardens.org. Proceeds from Antiques at the Gardens support the educational programs and outreach initiatives of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Since 2006, the event has raised more than $3 million for the Gardens.
This article is sponsored by Birmingham Botanical Gardens.