The Garden Club of Georgia consists of seven districts: Laurel, Azalea, Oleander, Camellia, Magnolia, Dogwood and Redbud. The Shade Garden, divided into sections named for each of the districts, features collections of flora representative of each title plant. With the exception of Oleander (which is represented by shade tolerant viburnums), all of these plants flourish along the paths that wander through each section. A plaza exists in every district, allowing visitors to rest on a bench and enjoy the sound of rustling leaves and singing birds. In conjunction with Whitehall Forest, the State Botanical Garden has been recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the National Audubon Society, and the Shade Garden is certainly the most accessible place in Athens to observe birds. All of the paths in the Shade Garden are smoothly paved, gently sloped and lined with handrails, making it both relaxing and open to people with disabilities. A familiar sight to many returning visitors, and for some the symbol of the State Botanical Garden, is the enchanting wisteria-covered arbor situated in the Azalea District Plaza. The Mathis Plaza provides another welcoming sight featuring a quiet reflecting pool and a sculpture by John Kehoe titled La Grazia dello Stelo (The Graceful Stem). This plaza honors William Mathis, the first president of the Friends of the Garden. The Shade Garden is the ideal place to spend a restful afternoon surrounded by recognizable flora. Like many other Southern gardens, it offers respite from the baking summer sun and the broiling Georgia heat.
While the neighboring Shade Garden contains many exotic species, the Dunson Native Flora Garden offers a different spectrum of plants. Over 300 species native to the southeastern United States, particularly those found in Georgia, find their home in this collection. Since the 17th century these plants have been sought after by botanists such as Clayton, Tradescant, Catesby and Michaux. They delivered hundreds of their discoveries back to Europe where the flora became popular additions to gardens of the Old World. In 1765 John and William Bartram discovered the famous Franklinia near present day Darien, Georgia. This distinctive tree has since become extinct in the wild, though today many threatened and endangered plants like it can be viewed in the Native Flora Garden. William's later expeditions covered local areas along the Middle Oconee River, and these travels likely took him through the current bounds of the State Botanical Garden. The Native Flora Garden, named in honor of Linton Reese Dunson Sr., offers a plethora of ephemerals, shrubs, trees and vines, each possessing a sense of local history. Here, along quiet chip mulch paths, collections such as the Fred C. Galle Azalea Study Garden highlight the natural diversity and beauty of the South.