The arboretum was founded in 1947 by Dr. Frank J. Rimoldi, a professor of applied tropical botany at the University of Miami. Over 350 plants were donated from local, state, and federal nurseries. In 1949, the arboretum was named for Dr. John C. Gifford, the first graduate forester in the United States, an expert on tropical woods and professor of tropical forestry at the University of Miami. In 1950, the Gifford Society of Tropical Botany was formed to promote the study of tropical plants and the arboretum grew to more than 500 plants.
During the following decades, many students, professors, and community members used the arboretum for teaching, research, and recreation. However, in the late 1980's, the need for additional campus parking threatened the existence of the Gifford Arboretum. Through the efforts of Coral Gables tree activist, Kathy Gaubatz (aka the Lorax of Coral Gables), the University of Miami gave full support in 1992 to the renovation and enhancement of the Gifford Arboretum. Since then, the arboretum survived Hurricane Andrew and has undergone considerable physical improvements with new plantings, irrigation, trails, signs, and maintenance.