In 1890, E.L. Greene established the University of California's Botanical Garden, located in Berkeley, California. He was the first chairman of the Department of Botany, and wanted to create a living collection of the native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants of the State of California.
He also wanted to gather in, as quickly 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.
In the 1920s, development of the campus forced the Botanical Garden out of its initial central campus location. Under the direction of the garden's director T. Harper Goodspeed, the garden was relocated to its current position on 34 acres in Strawberry Canyon, just above the main campus.
J.W. Gregg created the landscaping scheme; he was part of the Department of Landscape Design. Upon moving to the new location, Goodspeed used 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 additions were added to the collection. The first were to the Rhododendron Dell, acquired through gifts of alumni and friends, and largely supplemented by an expedition to remote areas of China by J.R. Rock. Goodspeed initiated a series of six expeditions to the Andes, between 1935 and 1958, with the purpose of collecting all species of the genus Nicotiana, with a determination of their ranges.
A secondary objective was collection of Andean plants in botanically unknown areas, which led to the acquisition of a magnificent collection of South American cacti and succulents. The collection was enlarged in the late 1940s by R.J. Rodin with a singularly large amount of succulents from southern Africa.
In the 1950s, the garden directorship passed to Herbert Baker. Under his tenure the collections were further expanded. 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 1970s and 1980s, the garden made a major change in its orientation. Under the leadership of Watson Laetsch, and later Robert Ornduff, 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.
In 1976, the Friends of the Botanical Garden was established as a support group for fundraising and, more importantly, for involving the general public in volunteer activities. In addition to the docents, a corps of volunteer propagators raises $30,000 to $40,000 a year with their plant sales.
On the fundraising side, the club has made possible most of the recent building in the garden. Examples include the Visitors Center, the Tour Orientation Center, the Townsend Amphitheater in the Mather Redwood Grove, the Aquatic Plants Display, and renovation of the Conference Center.