UCLA's botanical garden was started as an academic laboratory shortly after the Westwood, Los Angeles campus opened in 1929, on seven acres preserved for that purpose near the arroyo on the east side of the campus. It was funded in part by the California State Relief Administration, created by newly elected Governor Frank Merriam in 1933 to provide jobs through municipal work projects. The garden's first manager, George C. Groenewegen, started with horticultural donations from the United States Department of Agriculture and the Huntington Botanical Gardens, among others. By 1947 the garden hosted approximately 1,500 different species and varieties of plants. In the 1960s, garden director Mildred E. Mathias, who oversaw the garden from 1956–74, helped to develop it into the "university garden" and opened it for public tours. "The nest," a small amphitheater designed and built by the garden's staff and volunteers out of Northern Californian incense cedar and boulders shipped from Duarte, California, was opened in 1996.
Because the garden is frost-free it can accommodate tropical and sub-tropical plants, including special collections of ferns, palms, eucalyptus and figs. The eucalyptus and figs were brought to the garden during its early years, before they became widespread in the Los Angeles region. Plants are arranged by geographic, taxonomic or cultural needs to demonstrate to students and visitors how specimens are related to one another. They are also organized by themes, including desert plants, aquatic plants, Mediterranean-climate shrubs, and native Hawaiian plants, among others.