Originally laid out in the 1890s by park supervisor John McLaren, funding was insufficient to begin construction until Helene Strybing willed funds in 1926. Planting was begun in 1937 with WPA funds supplemented by local donations, and the arboretum officially opened in May 1940. As a part of Golden Gate Park, it is officially managed by the city of San Francisco, but the SF Botanical Garden Society plays an important role in providing educational programs, managing volunteers, and curatorial staff. Formed in 1955, the SF Botanical Garden Society (formerly the Strybing Arboretum Society) operates the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture, a bookstore, monthly plant sales and offers a wide range of community education programs for children and adults. The Society also raises money for new projects and Garden renovations. Using green building practices, a new Center for Sustainable Gardening is planned to replace the existing nursery. Other planned renovations include a Southeast Asian Cloud Forest and newly paved pathways.
The Garden continues to actively acquire plants; in 2008 it received 1,061 accessions totalling over 7,300 individual plants.
It was the site of the finish line of the eleventh season on the popular CBS reality show The Amazing Race.
The gardens are organized into several specialized collections:
- California native plants
- John Muir Nature Trail
- Redwood Trail
- Cape Province (South Africa)
- Mediterranean Basin Region
- Mild-temperate climate
- New Zealand
- Moon-viewing Garden - a Japanese design
- Takamine Garden - Asian plants
- Temperate Asia Garden
- Montane tropic
- Mesoamerican cloud forest
- Southeast Asian cloud forest (opening date TBD)
- Andean cloud forest (in development)
- Specialty collections
- Ancient Plant Garden - cycads, etc
- Succulent garden
- Dwarf Conifer garden
- Demonstration Garden
- Garden of Fragrance
- Zellerbach Garden of Perennials
- Dry Mexico
- Rhododendron Garden
- Magnolias & Camellias
The mild Mediterranean climate is ideal for plants from surprisingly many parts of the world; the arboretum does not include greenhouses for species requiring other climate types.
- 49-Mile Scenic Drive