The first rock garden at Inverleith was built in 1871 by James McNab. Whilst rockeries (landscaped features with rocks) were popular, the concept of a rock garden designed for true alpines was new. The first rock garden was made up of small compartments, each planted with single specimens and clearly labelled. This garden became a major attraction at Inverleith.
A new rock garden was completed in 1914, creating the more natural plantings which can be seen in the garden today. A scree bed was added at the front of the garden in 1933. The work on this area was done in consultation with George Forrest, to draw on his experiences of this mountain habitat in China.
The collection of alpines grew rapidly, as plant-hunters returned from expeditions with new botanical treasures. Today there are approximately 5,000 species in the Rock Garden.
A stream runs through the garden, starting with a waterfall at one of the highest points in the area, and running through to a pond, planted with semi-aquatic species around the margins. The stream then leaves the rock garden, eventually feeding the main pond lower in the garden.
There is interest in this garden throughout the year, with snowdrops emerging in late winter, followed by Crocus, Muscari, Pasque flower (Pulsatilla) and Primula. In the summer there are numerous penstemon from North and South America, Dianthus and Campanula continuing the colour and interest. In the Autumn structural plants such as Cotoneaster add their red berries to the colour from Colchicum and Gentians.