What is in a name? Over the past 66 years the Wilmot Gardens has been in existence, it has gone through several name changes. When it was planned originally in 1950 following the death of Royal James “Roy” Wilmot, the originators of the gardens, that is the members of the Gainesville Men’s Garden Club, envisioned the creation of a memorial garden. Early correspondence referred to the project as the Wilmot Memorial Garden. Newspaper articles reporting the dedication ceremony that took place in 1954 also described the venue as the Wilmot Memorial Garden. For the next 16 years this was the name used most frequently to identify the area.
In late 1970 a visionary plan for additional development of the garden and the surrounding area was submitted by the chair of the Department of Ornamental Horticulture, Dr. James W. Strobel, to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences leadership team for their consideration. The document entitled, “The Wilmot Memorial Garden – A Plan for Development and Use by the University Community 1970-1980,” called for expanded use of the original 10-acre camellia and azalea garden. Contained in the proposal were specific recommendations for new facilities including a greenhouse and expanded educational programs including specifically the introduction of horticultural therapy. Throughout the document and in several letters of support as well as in subsequent letters of response by IFAS leadership, the area was consistently referred to as the Wilmot Memorial Garden. Regrettably, there was no action taken on any of the recommendations.
Between 1970 and 2006, a period of 36 years, the area was variously referred to as Wilmot Garden and Wilmot Gardens, but less commonly as the Wilmot Memorial Garden. There were some exceptions, however. In a letter written in early 1998 by Roy Wilmot, Jr. that underscored the deplorable condition of the area at that time, he made reference to the …”memorial Gardens.” The response by the recipient of the Wilmot letter, Mr. Gil Whitton, a well-known horticulturist and radio personality who was quite familiar with the garden, referred to the area as the Wilmot Memorial Garden.
We now fast forward to 2006 when the decision was made to restore the area. A committee, “The Friends of Wilmot Gardens,” was established to assist and guide the restoration effort. The plural form of Wilmot Garden received increased usage from that time forward while “memorial” was rarely mentioned. In the spring of 2009, an historical marker was dedicated in the area that referred to the Wilmot Gardens. Interestingly, a more recent replacement marker reads “Wilmot Garden”! Nevertheless, from 2006 to the present, the preferred name has been the Wilmot Gardens.
Instead of what was once a camellia and azalea garden located in a pine forest as originally planned and developed, the area now boasts an ever-increasing variety of plants, shrubs, and trees that provide color, fragrance, and interest for its visitors throughout the year. These enhancements are contained in five specialty gardens within the Wilmot Gardens. They include a Japanese maple tree garden, a bromeliad garden, and the Hippocratic and Lifestyles gardens, the latter designed to attract butterflies and pollinators. The fifth garden, the Chapman Healing Garden, with a central water feature was added in 2017. The latter includes extensive plantings including five varieties of azaleas, plum trees, mule palms, a fringe tree, a swamp chestnut oak tree, Japanese maple trees, several camellias, dwarf gardenias, and numerous water plants. Interesting ground cover and various ornamental grasses and succulents complete the landscape.
We believe the current name of the area does not adequately convey the presence of these many enhancements described in the preceding paragraph and that taken together, along with the greenhouse dedicated in 2014, meet the definition of a botanical garden. In short we propose to rename this campus venue the Wilmot Botanical Gardens. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a botanical garden as “a garden often with greenhouses for the culture, study and exhibition of special plants.” The extensive variety of plantings that now exist throughout the garden along with our facilities and programs, all of which are open to the public, easily qualifies the area as a botanical garden.
Why is this rebranding important? First, too few people on the UF campus including faculty, students and staff let alone visitors from outside have an appreciation for the diversity of plant material that now exists in the Wilmot Gardens. Second, as time has passed, the Wilmot story is now known to only a few and the name by itself does not indicate the type of garden on the site today. In fact, web-based searches do not identify the Wilmot Gardens as a botanical garden. Thus, many visitors to the greater Gainesville area in general and the UF campus in particular fail to avail themselves of the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful and unique gardens on our campus.
Therefore, over the next several months we will gradually transition our official name from the Wilmot Gardens to the Wilmot Botanical Gardens. You will first see the change on our webpage and later on all of our printed materials and future news releases. So, come visit the Wilmot Botanical Gardens. You will not be disappointed!