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Garden Visit: The University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley

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Garden Visit: The University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley

April 14, 2022

Full disclosure: As a UC Berkeley alum, I’m biased about this glorious garden. I will also confess—this one is embarrassing—that while I spent four years at the college, I never once visited its botanical garden. I guess I was too “busy” doing “whatever.” Do I regret not taking advantage of being so close to one of the most notably diverse landscapes in the world? You bet. Now, many years later, I’m obsessed with this garden, making up for lost time by becoming a member and visiting the garden as much as I can. If you’ve never been to this botanical wonderland nestled in Berkeley’s Strawberry Canyon, then its time you put it on your list. It’s well worth the price of admission. In the meantime, here are some highlights:

Photography courtesy of University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, unless otherwise noted.

A Little History

A popular vantage point in the Garden, looking out at the distant foggy bay.
Above: A popular vantage point in the Garden, looking out at the distant foggy bay.

The University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley was first established in 1890 on the central campus and then moved to its current location in 1925. Technically speaking, the 34-acre garden is a research and conservation living museum, but it’s also an outdoor laboratory for a multitude of courses offered at the university—like biology, art, and landscape architecture. Luckily, it’s open to the public.

The Nuts and Bolts

New UCBG members on a tour lead by a plant-passionate docent. Photograph by Yoni Mayeri, courtesy of UCBG.
Above: New UCBG members on a tour lead by a plant-passionate docent. Photograph by Yoni Mayeri, courtesy of UCBG.

To help with categorization, the plants are cultivated geographically and in ethnobotanical collections. (Ethnobotany is the study of plant lore and the agricultural customs of a people). Naturalistic plantings showcase nine regions of the world: Asia, Australasia, Eastern North America, Mediterranean, Mexico/Central America, Deserts of the Americas, South America, South Africa, and, of course, California (a major collection of the state’s native plants that includes roughly 25 percent of the state’s flora and is the largest of its kind in the world).

California native Garrya elliptica, also known as Coast Silktassel, shows off its namesake creamy pendant catkins. Photograph by Kier Holmes.
Above: California native Garrya elliptica, also known as Coast Silktassel, shows off its namesake creamy pendant catkins. Photograph by Kier Holmes.

In fact, Sara Nagie, Marketing Manager at UCBG, tells me that along with members of the Center for Plant Conservation and California Plant Rescue, the Garden is working toward the goal of conserving all species ranked as rare and threatened in California. Currently, 12 rare/threatened California native species are successfully seed-banked, including the Oakland star-tulip (Calochortus umbellatus). Adding to this, Dr. Lewis Feldman, Director & Professor of Plant Biology, shares that, “the Garden is uniquely positioned to serve as an ‘ark’ for endangered and nearly extinct species.” The Garden has more than 1,000 rare and endangered plants from around the world.

Favorites

My top spot in the Garden is the Deserts of the Americas, filled with curious cactus. Photograph by Kier Holmes.
Above: My top spot in the Garden is the Deserts of the Americas, filled with curious cactus. Photograph by Kier Holmes.

When I recently toured the Garden with my equally as plant-obsessed mom, she commented with excitement, “It’s like you’re traveling the world all in one day!” Which feels completely true. Plus, as with most botanical gardens, it’s like a secret window into the complexity and profundity of the plant world. You can wander aimlessly viewing wildlife, learning new plant names, and absorbing the best of human design working in concert with nature. Some research even shows that visiting a public garden can reduce stress and improve quality of life. Another bonus.

Local garden favorites by members include the impressive collection of cacti in the Arid House, the newts migrating to the Japanese Pool in the Spring, and the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Mediterranean collection. My favorites? The agave-filled Deserts of Americas and the South African area where you will find proteas (another of my favorites) and an impressive collection of cycads. In fact, the Garden’s cycad collection is one of the most comprehensive in the world.

A posse of aptly named Hedgehog Agaves stops me in my tracks every time. Photograph by Kier Holmes.
Above: A posse of aptly named Hedgehog Agaves stops me in my tracks every time. Photograph by Kier Holmes.

Across the street from the main part is the lesser-known Mather Redwood Grove, a lovely re-creation of a redwood habitat with winding paths and towering giants. Just make sure to ask at the main garden kiosk for the code to get in.

Every time you visit the Garden, expect to witness a new botanical show, whether it’s newly opened blooms or newly revealed vistas (thankfully, comfortable wood benches are plentiful). Plus, from time to time, the Garden acquires plants like the very rare Peruvian orchid (Phragmipedium kovachii). When it comes into flower, it’s displayed in the Orchid, Fern and Carnivorous Plant House for all to marvel at.

A peak inside one of the greenhouses, showcasing unique ferns and Bromeliads.
Above: A peak inside one of the greenhouses, showcasing unique ferns and Bromeliads.

Beyond trunks and leaves and flowers and ferns, the Garden is a local refuge for numerous creatures include a breeding colony of California and rough-skinned newts, Pacific chorus frogs, and many nesting bird species such as Hooded Orioles, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Yellow-rumped Warblers. In addition, the Garden offers a diverse range of lectures, workshops, family programs for the littlest of green thumbs, and art shows displayed in the historic Julia Morgan Hall, built in 1911.

Looking Ahead

Dr. Lewis Feldman shares, “I have prioritized projects that modernize infrastructure, enhance accessibility and promote the important role that our collection plays in conservation, research, and education.” As a longtime faculty member at UC Berkeley, Dr. Feldman greatly values the importance of educating the public on the relationship between people and plants.

Two projects currently underway are the renovation of the popular Tropical House and the display area where visitors will be able to observe plants that produce food such as coffee, chocolate, and vanilla.  The display will also include some botanical tropical treasures like the famous titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), which has one of the largest flower stalks in the world.

For more botanical gardens to visit, see:

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