A small garden of economic plants was established on the Berkeley campus on the site currently occupied by Moffit Library in the 1870’s by Dr. Eugene W. Hilgard (1833-1916), founding Dean of Agriculture . The University of California Botanical Garden was formally established in 1890 by E. L. Greene, the first chairman of the Department of Botany, to form a living collection of the native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants of the State of California, with the intent to gather in as rapidly as possible those of the neighboring states of the Pacific Coast. Within two years the collection numbered 600 species. In the following decade it grew to 1500, but then began to expand both its scope and collection to encompass plants from all continents and about 10,000 species.
The original official Garden was located near Haviland Hall on the north side of campus centered around a large glass conservatory modeled after the London Crystal Palace .
In the 1920's plans for campus development forced the Botanical Garden out of its initial central campus location (actually, the site remained a parking lot until 2007). Under the auspices of then Garden director T. Harper Goodspeed the Garden was relocated to its current position on 34 acres in Strawberry Canyon above the main campus, using a landscaping scheme created by J. W. Gregg in the Department of Landscape Design. In moving to the new location Goodspeed codified the principle that the Garden's plantings are to be organized according to their geographical origins in settings resembling the native habitats. This principle continues to dominate Garden policy.
Following the move to Strawberry Canyon major early additions were made to the collections including the Rhododendron Dell, the New World Desert and associated cactus and succulent collections and the California Redwood Grove (now Stephen J. Mather Redwood Grove). These were followed by the addition of the Chinese Dawn Redwoods (Metasequia) from one of the earliest expeditions to China by a Berkeley paleobotanist.
Goodspeed initiated a series of six expeditions to the Andes (carried out between 1935 and 1958). Their primary objective was to collect all species of the genus Nicotiana (tobacco and its close relatives) , with determination of their ranges. A secondary objective was collection of Andean plants in botanically unknown areas, and which led to the acquisition of a magnificent collection of South American cacti and succulents This was enlarged in the late 1940's by R. J. Rodin with a singularly large collection of succulents from southern Africa . Other significant additions in the Goodspeed era were the acquisition of specimens from the rediscovered grove of dawn redwoods in China and the planting of a five-acre grove of Californian coast redwoods.
Following Goodspeed's retirement in the 1950's the Garden directorship passed to Herbert Baker. Under his tenure (1957-1969) the collections were further expanded . A seventh expedition, to Bolivia and Peru in 1964, was carried out by garden botanist Paul Hutchison, which added more succulents as well as tropical plants to the collections. Notable additions included major collections from Mesoamerica , Australia and New Zealand , expansion of the Californian native plant collection, and development of a section for economic plants. Baker instituted a major policy change: other than for a few special exceptions all plants accessioned by the Garden must have complete data on their natural origins. Adherence to this policy has endowed the collection with substantial value for researchers world wide.
In the 1970's and 1980's, the Garden made a major change in its orientation. Previously the Garden's principal functions were support of instruction in botany on the Berkeley campus and scientific research -- Goodspeed became the leading authority of his time on the biosystematics of Nicotiana, and Baker is renowned for his research on plant ecological genetics. Under the leadership of Watson Laetsch in 1969-74 and later Robert Ornduff (1974-1991) the Garden launched into a program of outreach to the wider community, becoming the only one of the five natural history museums at Berkeley that is open to the public. A docent program was inaugurated in 1974. Each year the Garden's corps of almost 100 docents lead many hundreds of tours for thousands of school children, adults, and university students.
In 1989, the Garden was placed under the control of the College of Natural Resources and was then transferred to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research in 1996. During this decade, there was a succession of five acting directors and directors following the long tenure of Robert Ornduff.
In 2003, the Directorship was assumed by Dr. Paul Licht, Professor Emeritus, Department of Integrative Biology. The construction of a new entrance to the Garden ushered in a period of revitalization of the infrastructure and an increased reliance on non-state funding. The Garden was initially funded entirely by state funds
but is state funds now account for less than one-half of the annual budget.
Fund raising and revenue generation are critical to the Garden’s budget. The Friends of the Botanical Garden was established in 1976 as a support group for fundraising and, more importantly, for involving the general public in volunteer activities. Although the formal Friends group was dissolved in 1997, a community of about 250 volunteers continue to support all activities in the Garden. In addition to the docents, a corps of volunteer propagators raises a significant portion of the Garden’s budget through two annual plant sales (spring and fall) and daily plant sales from the Garden Shop nursery. Volunteers staff the Garden Shop, which offers a wide selection of garden-related books and gifts. Additional volunteers donate time and labor in assistance to the horticultural and curatorial staff. Members of the Garden help support its programs and operations.