In 1910, this site was an isolated acreage of stumps and bush. It was owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway and was leased by the Shaughnessy Golf Club from 1911 until 1960 when the golf club moved to a new location. The railway proposed a subdivision, but was opposed by many citizens. In 1966, the VanDusen Botanical Garden Association was formed to assist the Vancouver Park Board with saving the site. This effort was successful and the land was purchased with shared funding from the City of Vancouver, the Government of British Columbia and the Vancouver Foundation with a donation by W. J. VanDusen, after whom the Garden was named.
Development started in 1971 and VanDusen Botanical Garden officially opened to the public on August 30, 1975.
Landscape development was under the direction of W. C. Livingstone from 1971 to 1976. Curator Roy Forster managed the Garden and was responsible for much of the planting design from 1977 to 1996.
The Floral Hall and Garden Pavilion were designed by Underwood, McKinley, Wilson and Smith with Herb Wilson, designer and architect. The award-winning Forest Centre was designed by Thompson, Berwick, Pratt and Partners with Paul Merrick, design architect.