The land which supports the biosystem of the Wellesley College Botanic Gardens was molded during the age of the last glaciers.
After 1650, Native American Algonquins made it their home. Colonists later converted the land into farms and grazing fields. Wellesley College was founded on 500 acres of farming land in 1875.
Wellesley's botanical legacy goes back to founder Henry Durant, who had a strong interest in botany and an impressive collection of plants in his own greenhouses, which he made available to students. Several notable botanists helped develop Wellesley's botanical resources, including Susan Hallowell, who was Wellesley's first Professor of Botany and formed the original department; Margaret Ferguson, who oversaw the creation of the arboretum and botanic garden as well as the greenhouse complex that bears her name; Helen Davis, who designed the Alexandra Botanic Garden and the H.H. Hunewell Arboretum; and Harriet Creighton, who made widely recognized contributions to botanical education, and whose dissertation work under Barbara McClintock was the first demonstration of recombination at the cellular level, an important part of the work for which McClintock won the Nobel Prize.
WCBG has continued to emphasize educational value, primarily via its incredibly diverse plant collections. Margaret Ferguson's stated goal for the outdoor gardens is still operative: to present "all the wild flowers and shrubs that are native to Wellesley, and many, from other parts of the world, that can be encouraged to grow here." The greenhouse collections also have a diversity goal, as expressed by Margaret Ferguson: to provide "opportunity to study and compare plants that are native to different regions of the earth, and others that are found growing under a great variety of habitats." Her stated goal for the Botany Department upon the completion of the greenhouse complex in 1925 is reflected in WCBG's mission: "It is our purpose that the department shall stand, primarily, in the future as in the past, for the dignity and educational value of its scientific work. At the same time we shall not fail to emphasize the humanistic aspects of our subject; and we shall endeavor to form a center that shall be of interest to all."