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Cornell University’s varied topography and landscape is what defines its scenic beauty. Cornell Botanic Gardens is responsible for most of these natural treasures, overseeing one-third of the Ithaca, New York, campus, and with off-campus natural areas, a total of 3,600 acres. 

Cultural History of Cornell Botanic Gardens

The vision to secure space for an “outdoor laboratory” began with the birth of Cornell University in 1865. Early Cornell leaders envisioned areas for natural study, research, and enjoyment, as well as display gardens in which “plants are displayed so appropriately that at first there is interest, then appreciation for their many values for human use and enjoyment.”

Over the 150 years since its founding, plans for what is now Cornell Botanic Gardens were formed and manifested. 

1870-1911– Albert Prentiss and Willard Rowlee, as university grounds superintendents “set apart the arboretum from Cornell.”

1909– Cornell Alumni recognized the need to preserve and protect the gorges surrounding the University.

1914– An area for a Botanic Garden and Arboretum were part of a Cornell University Master Plan.

1925– The first plan for an “arboretum, including Cascadilla and Fall Creek Gorges” is approved by the Board of Trustees.

1936– The northern half of Comstock Knoll was officially transferred to the Cornell Arboretum by the Department of Forestry.

1935-1941- The Civilian Conservation Corps established at Cornell to build infrastructure for arboretum site to “pave the way for plantings to follow.”

1944- Professor Liberty Hyde Bailey, trustee of the Arboretum Committee, suggests the name Cornell Plantations, which is approved. This is considered the founding year of Cornell’s botanic garden and arboretum.

1958– The “Sponsoring Committee” is established to provide alumni support and advice.

1963– The Mundy Wildflower Garden is established.

1964 – The Forest Home School becomes Cornell Plantations’ headquarters, now the Lewis Building. The first Rhododendrons are planted on Comstock Knoll.

1965– Land ceded to Cornell Plantations from Cornell to increase the size the arboretum. Richard Lewis is named first director.

1973– The Clement Gray Bower’s Rhododendron Collection on Comstock Knoll is dedicated.

1974– The Robison York State Herb Garden is dedicated.

1977– Cornell assigns stewardship of university natural areas to Plantations.

1981– The expansion of the arboretum is completed and it becomes the F. R. Newman Arboretum. The Young Flower Garden, and Heasley Rock Garden are dedicated.

1987– The Groundcover Collection is dedicated.

2000-2007– Plantations completes a series of capital improvement projects, which includes the construction of the Arboretum Building (2000), Horticulture Building (2001), Ramin Administration Building (2003), Rowley Carpentry Shop (2004), and the Lath House and Plant Production Facility, with renovations to the Lewis Education Building (2007-8).

2001– The Mullestein Winter Garden is dedicated.

2008– Plantations works with Architects Baird, Sampson and Neuert to design a new welcome center.

2009– Plantations completes the Interpretive Master Planning Process.

2010– The Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center dedicated

2014– Christopher Dunn hired as director and begins process of evaluating brand and strategic direction of Cornell Plantations

2015– Strategic planning begins

2016– University Board of Trustees changes name from Cornell Plantations to Cornell Botanic Gardens

2017- Strategic plan adopted, establishing Cornell Botanic Gardens’ aim to be leaders in connecting plants and peoples for a world of beauty, diversity, and hope

2018– Cornell Botanic Gardens successfully meets first-year objectives of plan