5 Star Stories: The Memphis Botanic Garden -- an urban paradise in the heart of Memphis

Updated: Jun. 24, 2020 at 10:39 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - If you’re looking for serenity in today’s world there’s a spot in Memphis just for that -- an urban paradise in the heart of Memphis! With lush gardens that have hosted community events, lavish weddings, athletic feats, even concerts, the Memphis Botanic Garden is not letting the coronavirus dim its luster.

Experts say the calming influence of nature and plants can help people concentrate better while also soothing their souls.

Sepal, petal, and a thorn. Upon a common summer’s morn. A flash of dew, a bee or two. A breeze, a caper in the trees, and I’m a rose!

That poem was one of many penned by Dickinson which showcased her love of gardening and the flowers within. And it’s a beauty that also envelops visitors to the Memphis Botanic Garden.

It all started in 1953, when the city dedicated a portion of Audubon Park to garden enthusiasts.

“And what happened is, back in those days all these different garden clubs -- you had the Rose Garden Club and you had Hosta Club and you had the Iris -- and all the different ones,” said Michael Allen, the executive director of the Memphis Botanic Garden. “And they needed a place both to sort of meet for their membership. Over the years, with a few exceptions, most of those garden clubs have ceased to exist. And so the botanic garden now maintains each of those gardens.”

The Memphis Botanic Garden now consists of 31 gardens on 96 acres just off Cherry Road in East Memphis and is now tended by about 25 horticulture employees. It’s also a source of refuge – in a world of uncertainty even after the coronavirus pandemic forced the park to close for two months – but, even now, Allen says things are markedly different.

“On a typical year, we’ll have about 240,000 visitors to the Memphis Botanic Garden,” said Allen. “Of that 240,000 about 44-ish-thousand are school children, another 30,000 are visitors to “Live at the Garden”-- to our music series. And the rest of folks who come here, generally speaking, to walk the grounds are attending one of the events. But, as we sit here today, we’re probably operating at about 40% of where we were last year, in terms of attendance.”

All indoor events at the Botanic Garden -- like weddings, business meetings and other activities are on hold. Also gone this year, the Live at the Garden summer concert series in a year that Allen says would have been especially significant.

“This would have been our 20th year, our 20th anniversary,” he said. “That too is a tremendous support -- a tremendous part of our funding model.”

Allen says typically, the Memphis Botanic Garden hosts 150 weddings and/or receptions every year. But, that probably won’t be the case this year due to the closure of all indoor facilities.

However, he adds, all outdoor spaces are rentable.

“Outdoor weddings are still very welcome here,” said Allen. “We can space people out and you can have almost an unlimited number of people -- as long as we try to keep you spread apart. We have the Rose Garden, which has a gorgeous round fountain in there. We have the Blecken Pavillion which is in sort of a wooded area -- it’s almost chapel like -- it’s beautiful.”

Despite the serene nature of the Garden, there’s also plenty of fun to be had for the little ones even though the family garden, My Big Backyard, is still closed.

“But, the kids can go to the Koi pond, feed that koi fish,” said Allen. “They can go see our loud chickens over here in the new chicken coop in the Urban Home Garden.”

Incidentally, the Urban Home Garden, only about a year old and located in the former Nature Photography Garden on the southern edge of the grounds, showcases innovative approaches to outdoor living from edible landscaping and composting to outdoor cooking and raising chickens. There’s also a Sensory and Butterfly Garden for the whole family to enjoy.

Though this “new normal” is not one of choice, Allen says there have been valuable lessons -- nature’s way of providing clarity.

“The interesting by-product of the pandemic is that it has taught us to adapt in ways that I’m not sure we thought we could adapt in the past,” said Allen. “So, it’s taught us to be innovative, it’s taught us to take some chances and it’s taught us things that I think will carry over to the future, once this pandemic passes.”

The Memphis Botanic Garden is back on its normal summertime schedule -- open every day from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. along with the newly renovated Visitor’s Center.

Memberships run $45 to $75 a year. And, though the Memphis Botanic Garden’s summer camp is on hiatus due to the coronavirus, the garden is providing packets with materials for parents to pick up and take home to their children for a virtual summer camp experience.

Also, if you’re so inclined, you can help the Memphis Botanic Garden through its difficulties in funding by donating to the Garden’s Coronavirus Assistance Fund.

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