Former Norfolk Botanical Garden President and CEO Michael Desplaines is at the wheel of a golf cart, deftly navigating some of the Norfolk landmark’s 16 miles of paths for a whirlwind tour that showcases its rich history as much as the spectacular beauty of its flora. Yet a passion for plants is evidenced by his sudden stops to admire the eye-popping purple of a row of flag iris or soak in the sweet smell of dianthus blooms.
“Oh, look at the portulaca,” Desplaines effuses at the base of the garden’s NATO Tower, which underwent a major renovation completed in 2020 that included a new retaining wall and Mediterranean-inspired garden featuring a variety of drought-tolerant plants. “And that aloe blooming! Wow. And this is one of my favorites, this dwarf fan palm. It’s called ‘Vulcano.’”
Among the Garden’s most famous blooming residents are its kaleidoscopic azaleas, some 4,000 of which were originally planted by more than 200 primarily African American women as part of the Works Progress Administration following the Great Depression. Their foundational contribution to the Garden is honored with a memorial called Breaking Ground in the Mirror Lake section of the Garden and is one of the first stops on Desplaines’ tour.
It’s a fitting commemoration given the Garden’s goals of connecting more people to nature in a meaningful way and expanding its conservation efforts to help address climate change and habitat loss. Those goals are set to get a boost from a major growth spurt in the form of a $30+ million renovation and expansion project, the largest in the Garden’s 85-year history, part of a fundraising and improvement campaign called “The Garden of Tomorrow.” The project will become a part of Desplaines’ leadership legacy since he recently announced he would be leaving the Garden after nine years for a similar role in California.
The first phases of The Garden of Tomorrow are already underway, and completion of all phases is expected by 2024. Some key elements of the project will include an ecologically advance parking garden, a dramatic new entry pavilion and walk-in ticketing system that will replace the current ticket booth at the Garden’s entrance, full restaurant, a water education and rowing center, and a 26,000-square-foot plant conservatory featuring multiple biomes, special exhibit spaces and an elevated skywalk, which will offer aerial views of the Garden’s celebrated roses.
During his golf cart tour, Desplaines sets the historical stage for The Garden of Tomorrow by pointing out key moments in the Garden’s evolution since it was founded by Norfolk City Manager Thomas P. Thompson and horticulturalist Frederic Heutte in the 1930s. Virginia’s largest botanical garden, Norfolk Botanical Garden now welcomes more than half a million visitors annually and is one of only 3% of gardens accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
From the building of the classic midcentury modern Administration Building (also recently renovated), NATO Tower and Cobblestone Bridge in the 1960s to the addition of the Baker Hall Visitor Center in the 1990s and World of Wonders Children’s Garden in 2006, the Garden has seen fairly dramatic updates and expansions over the decades.
But, as Desplaines notes in a promotional video for the project, the goal of The Garden of Tomorrow is “to take a beloved and historic coastal landmark to the next level to become even more ecologically friendly, even more accessible and even more beautiful,” a transformational endeavor that “will really change the entire experience here at Norfolk Botanical Garden for generations to come.”
That’s news to grow on. Desplaines’ tenure at Norfolk Botanical Garden ended on June 30. Peter Schmidt, chief financial officer and vice president of human resources, will serve as interim CEO until a permanent replacement is found.