Visit the largest public horticulture library in the country at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens is Alabama’s largest living museum with more than 12,000 different plants, but what makes this attraction even more charming is a horticulture library tucked among the flowers and native species. It’s the largest public horticulture library in the country to be exact and part of the city’s excellent Jefferson County public library system.
This library’s roots date back to 1973 as the Horace Hammond Memorial Library. Members of the Third District of the Federated Garden Clubs donated books at a book fair and other horticultural books were purchased to make up the first collection. A volunteer began cataloguing, and the seeds were sowed.
Today, this little library located in the Garden Center contains more than 8,000 books, magazines and multimedia on all subjects related to gardening, along with 300 rare books dating to 1676. Ask to see the Library Archives and Rare Book Room, established in 2008, where you’ll also find 70 historical postcards depicting the conservatory and gardens over the years, old botanical prints, seed catalogues, farmers almanacs, garden club scrapbooks maps and more garden and botanical ephemera.
Among the most notable items in the library’s collection are the Marion Thomas Brooks Works Progress Administration (WPA) Scrapbook Collection, which documents the WPA Beautification programs guidelines and many of the projects statewide; a series of illustrated books on orchids, named after Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach, a prominent botanist, ornithologist and orchid fancier, done in the Audubon style; and the Masaji “Buffy” Morai Japanese Watercolor Collection from the landscape architect hired from St. Louis during the late 1960s to design the Japanese Garden at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
The library also hosts the Thyme To Read Book Club monthly. The club read Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp last year and is reading Delicious! by Ruth Reichl during the month of March. Each fall, the library sponsors an event titled “Southern Tales” in which storyteller Dolores Hydock performs a one-woman show based on advice from Ann Landers.
“Most of our patrons are public library patrons who have a passion for gardening,” says Library Director Hope Long, an avid gardener herself. “We also get a lot of Master Gardeners.”
After doing some research, light reading or checking out books for your next garden project, head out into the surrounding gardens themselves and explore 67.5 acres of more than 30 thematic spaces. Across from the Garden Center entrance are the rose gardens with more than 50 types found wild around the world and in cultivation before 1867. Follow the path to the Southern Living Garden and Japanese Garden, a 7.5 acre site with traditional architecture, a waterfall, bonsai house, bamboo groves, Japanese maples and ginkgos.
On the other side of the gardens, you’ll find spaces dedicated to irises, camellias, wildflowers, ferns, herbs and vegetables, but The Conservatory is the main attraction. Designed in 1962 by noted glasshouse designer Dr. Henry E. Teuscher, the structure is similar to his creation at the Montreal Botanical Garden. A Tropical House, Arid House and Camellia House can be found inside. (Also on the garden grounds are a cafe serving lunch inspired by local greens and produce from Kathy G. and the Leaf and Petal Gift Shop.)
Just as Birmingham Mayor James W. Morgan commissioned the first master plan in 1960 when he envisioned “the biggest attraction of this type in the Southeast,” today’s staff, volunteers and master gardeners tend to that original vision while making way for new growth. A new master plan calls for science-based educational programming, technologies that focus on conservation, a grand stage for events and the expansion of native plant collections.
Read all about it in the library, open daily for locals with a library card and visitors who just want to test their green thumb.
Photos by Deep South.