In 1903, Dr. William Chambers Coker, the University's first Professor of Botany and the first chair of the University Buildings and Grounds Committee, began developing a five-acre boggy pasture into an outdoor University classroom for the study of trees, shrubs, and vines native to North Carolina. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing through the 1940s, Dr. Coker added many East Asian trees and shrubs. These species, closely related counterparts to many North Carolina native plants, enhanced the beauty and educational value of the Arboretum. Today the collection consists of a wide variety of plantings including flowering trees and shrubs as well as bulb and perennial displays. The Arboretum has something unique to offer during every season of the year.
In April of 2003, the Arboretum celebrated its 100th Anniversary with exhibits and activities all over the University's campus and Chapel Hill. Part of the celebration was the production of an art book, A Haven in the Heart of Chapel Hill: Artists Celebrate the Coker Arboretum, which depicts the scenes and specimens as though one were on a walking tour of this special garden (see sidebar). The book makes a wonderful gift for anyone acquainted with the Arboretum, and the proceeds of its sale go toward ensuring the garden's care in the future.