The Arboretum is named for Edith J. Carrier, the wife of JMU President Emeritus, Ronald E. Carrier. During his presidential tenure from 1971 to 1998, Mrs. Carrier served the university tirelessly as a hostess for academic, political, and corporate dignitaries visiting JMU, and as an event planner and event administrator for university executive events, but without pay or public acknowledgement. Naming the Arboretum in her honor was an acknowledgement of gratitude by the James Madison University Board of Visitors to officially recognize Edith J. Carrier's years of service to the university. Since its founding, a goal has been set to maintain as much of the natural environment as possible while achieving the maximum use of this resource for the benefit of the JMU community, the City of Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, and the Shenandoah Valley region communities and tourism visitors. Previous efforts in the Arboretum's creation included the acquisition of lands, the development of the overall layout of the site, the design of the gardens and walking trails, and the planting of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers with a focus on native plants.
In 1964, JMU Botany Professor, Dr. Norlyn Bodkin, began using the "College Woods" for educational purposes, along with other natural sciences faculty Dr. Gilbert Trelawny and Dr. James Grimm. Dr. Bodkin started advocating in earnest for a campus arboretum in the early 1970s and by 1977 was pushing hard for a living botanical laboratory at newly-renamed James Madison University. In that year after receiving President Dr. Ronald E. Carrier's approval, plans were begun, surveys were conducted, and for an arboretum the first allotment of 26 acres were set aside, most of which are named in his honor, the Norlyn Bodkin Oak Hickory Forest.
In October of 1986, a Board was created. They were charged with guiding the Arboretum's development, operations, and fundraising. In 1988, water features, including a pond, were created with the help of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. Erosion and run-off that impact the pond continue to be a challenge to the staff, but the pond habitat is one of the most endearing features of the Arboretum as well as a visual center of the gardens. The forest acres, obtained in 1993, hold 90-100 year-old oaks and hickories (with at least three identified century trees protected within the Arboretum's boundaries).
Recognition came when the Arboretum was designated a Living Legacy by the Commission on the Bicentennial for the U.S. Constitution on September 19, 1987. The designation required JMU to have a long-term maintenance plan, access for the general public, and plantings that featured trees and plants from the 13 original colonies. This award helped ensure the Arboretum would be a lasting legacy for JMU and the community.
In a nod to a legacy figurehead, an Arboretum donor society, created in 1990, was named The John Clayton Botanical Society. An English native, John Clayton, who came to Virginia in 1715 and became a self-taught expert in Virginia botany, discovered many woodland wildflowers that the Arboretum currently cultivates. Clayton was praised by Thomas Jefferson as having “contributed more than any other botanist who lived.” The famed Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, named the Virginia plant “Spring Beauty” Claytonia virginica in honor of his friend and fellow botanist. To honor Clayton, the Arboretum has a John Clayton Trail, as well as the plants that bear his name.
As evidenced by their naming of The John Clayton Botanical Society, the staff at the Arboretum takes their role as keepers of botanical history seriously. The staff has rescued wildflowers from encroaching development, helping to conserve, propagate, and expand the native Virginian plant ecosystem. In addition, the Arboretum's former director, Norlyn Bodkin, was inducted into the Linnaean Society in London, England, in December of 1991. The Arboretum is a member of numerous botanical organizations including the American Public Gardens Association, the American Horticultural Society, the American Rhododendron Society, the Herb Society of America, and the Virginia Native Plant Society. The Arboretum serves as a component site of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. These associations and organizations offer accreditation to specific areas of botanical knowledge.
The Arboretum strives to offer to its constituents knowledge of areas of botanical and environmental interest during its brown bag lunch lecture series held in the open-air Pavilion. The Pavilion was built in the 1990s, and, until an education center opened, it was the only roofed structure available to the public. In 2007, an education and office building was constructed. That building, the Frances Plecker Education Center (Education Center) facilitated and heightened access for more visitors of the Arboretum. The Education Center made possible public and private gatherings and a space to hold educational events, regardless of inclement weather. With this newest building, the Arboretum fulfilled its potential as a community educational resource. The indoor learning, public reception and office space transformed the Arboretum into a year-round destination public garden. The Education Center provides indoor handicap accessible restrooms as well as handicap accessible ramps and parking. These were accessibility firsts for the Arboretum. Interestingly, providing this limited initial accessibility revealed to the staff and Board that persons with mobility issues were limited to experiencing the Arboretum from the sole vantage of the Education Center.