In 1854, Commissioner of Crown Lands Alfred Domett arrived at Ahuriri with instructions from the Colonial Secretary in Wellington to survey and prepare a plan for the yet un-named town of Napier.
In a letter accompanying his draft survey, Domett said he had set out various reserves to provide areas for a cemetery, police station, hospital, school and botanical garden.
In 1855, he recommended that 18 acres be set aside for a botanical garden and 4.5 acres for a cemetery. By 1874, when Napier was declared a borough, the Provincial Government had already established the Botanical Gardens.
Early caretakers, Burness and Burton began the task of landscaping and planting an unpromising site. The terrain was difficult, the budget was small and only prison labour was available to help develop the gardens. To combat droughts during those early years, use was made of the wells that were sunk in the lower gardens for the 65th Regiment.
Until Napier South was reclaimed, the gardens were the town's only public park. Little money and effort were invested in them through the two world wars and during the Depression. By 1960, they were in a sorry state, serving mainly as a shortcut up the hill to Napier Hospital.
In 1961, a duck pond and an aviary for 'free-flying' budgerigars were built as part of a programme aimed at improving the Botanical Gardens and boosting its popularity. The Napier City Council undertook a big clean-up and name-tagged specimen trees, many of which were, by then, approaching 100 years of age.
In 1970, the terracotta fountain in the upper area of garden was restored although more recently lost its upper tier to vandalism.
The gardens' historical features include the Military Track, which ran alongside the cemetery, the building site of the old sexton's cottage, the disused military well and pre-European Maori middens.
In 1858, British troops of the 65th Regiment were stationed at the barracks on the hilltop above the gardens. To supply them with water, a well was dug in the lower part of the Botanical Gardens reserve.
Wastewater from washing clothes was tipped down the slope, giving the area the nickname "Soapsuds Gully".
The site of the first well, in the lower southeast section of the gardens, is marked with an ornamental stone parapet built in 1964.
In 1875, the first trained gardener, Mr Burton, was appointed to develop and maintain the gardens. His initial undertaking was to plant Pinus radiata on the slopes between Enfield Road and Napier Terrace. With very little money available, Mr Burton used prison labour to lay out paths and terraces and to plant trees.
Plants for the gardens were sourced from other New Zealand centres and from captains of ships calling into the Napier port. William Colenso, an early missionary in Hawke's Bay, and other Napier settlers donated trees and maintained an interest in the gardens. Later, patterned flowerbeds were established.
During the occupation of the hilltop barracks, supplies for the detachment from the 65th Regiment were carried up from the junction of Chaucer Road South and Spencer Road via the track, which runs between the Botanical Gardens and the Old Napier Cemetery. This "Military Track" was not as steep as either of the road routes. Good views of the gardens can be had from the track.
Napier's original cemetery is located at the top of the spur beside the Military Track. The inscriptions on headstones offer a glimpse into the town's early history.
Ample roadside parking is available at the top entrance to the Botanical Gardens on Napier Terrace. There is also a small car park, with disabled parking, at the lower Spencer Road entrance.
Accesses off Spencer Road and Napier Terrace, Napier Hill.