ASHEVILLE, North Carolina – April 13, 2024 – A celebrated leader in botany has announced his departure from The North Carolina Arboretum after more than three decades of service.

Effective August 1, founding director George Briggs will retire from the arboretum, ending a 37-year career.

Briggs is credited with creating The Arboretum at 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way in Asheville, reported as one of five affiliate institutions within the 17-campus University of North Carolina System.

“As a small-town guy from Reidsville, North Carolina, who has been able to build an institution from scratch as part of one of the strongest university systems in the world, located in my home state, it just doesn’t get much better than that in looking back on a career,” Briggs told Citizen Times on April 15.

“I’ve been honored and appreciative of the opportunity to tackle this challenge and to feel good about leaving it at this point in my life.”

The late UNC President C. D. Spangler appointed Briggs, who has since reported to seven university system presidents.

“In the arboretum world, George Briggs is a pioneer species. He’s been breaking new ground and seeding grand ideas at the North Carolina Arboretum for 37 years, growing its impact in education, research, and conservation,” UNC System President Peter Hans said in an April 13 news release. “George’s patient vision has made the Arboretum a true gem for the UNC System and the state of North Carolina.”

The announcement of Briggs’ retirement came amid the 23rd annual Western North Carolina Orchid Society’s Asheville Orchid Festival, taking place April 13-14 at the N.C. Arboretum.

‘Internationally acclaimed place of beauty’

As executive director, Briggs oversees a $10 million budget. His accomplishments have included “the initiation of several economic development initiatives focused on building Asheville’s climate science and business sector, the natural products economy in North Carolina, and stewardship of the managed landscape,” according to the arboretum’s news release.

In 1987, Briggs attended his first public event during which 429 acres of the Bent Creek Experimental Forest of the Pisgah National Forest, established by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1986, was designated for the arboretum in the memorandum of understanding signed by the governor and U. S. Forest Service officials.

The arboretum reported that it serves more than 600,000 annual visitors and 100,000 students throughout North Carolina and garners support from more than 20,000 household memberships as Western North Carolina’s major state-supported attraction.

“In creating The North Carolina Arboretum, George Briggs has brought to Western North Carolina an internationally acclaimed place of beauty, creativity, learning and economic opportunity,” Cheryl McMurry Kaynard, chair of the arboretum’s board of directors, said in a news release.

“The profound and inspiring impact of George’s leadership skills, his exceptional intelligence and character, and his insistence on truly excellent results are on display every day at the Arboretum and are seen, experienced and valued by everyone who has worked with George over the years.”

Formerly, Briggs served as professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech, executive director of the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and president of the American Public Gardens Association.

According to the arboretum, Briggs founded and chaired the first World Congress of Botanical Gardens held in Asheville that “ratified an inaugural policy framework for plant conservation in public gardens worldwide.”

Briggs said the event, which occurred in 2000, required 11 years of work and involved 30 international associations of public gardens. He said it’s been adopted formerly by more than 500 gardens worldwide.

Briggs, who’s been instrumental in the growth of the craft, green industry and tourism economy, has served on numerous state and national boards with long tenures on the N.C. Plant Conservation Board and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center Board.

He was recognized by the N.C. Office of State Construction for Excellence in the Built Environment and induction into the Council of Fellows of the American Society of Landscape Architects.