Plants for the People: The UC Botanical Garden Is Blooming and Ready for Visitors

“The garden is a resource that belongs to the people of California. And it’s right at their doorstep.”
By Maddy Weinberg

ON JULY 14, 2020, THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA BOTANICAL GARDEN at Berkeley welcomed visitors for the first time since its closure four months earlier due to the coronavirus pandemic. The garden’s executive director, plant biology professor Dr. Lewis Feldman, stood by the gates, greeting the first arrivals. “When people came in, [they] burst into tears,” says Feldman. “It was, for them, as if something normal had been returned to their lives. … I think the garden here represents a return to what life was like. … It’s very renewing.”

Formally established in 1890, the UC Botanical Garden was originally located in the north part of the Berkeley campus, near Haviland Hall. In the 1920s, to make room for expansion, the garden was transplanted to its current locale, a 34-acre plot in Strawberry Canyon. It is now home to more than 10,000 species.

“When you come to the garden, you can walk across continents by just stepping across the pathway,” says Feldman.

Though the garden itself is not a research institution, researchers often come to collect samples and conduct their own studies. According to Feldman, about 80 percent of the plants were either collected in the wild or grown from seed collected in situ. “So we have here in the garden the actual genetic stock of the plants in the environments they come from. No hybrids. It is a very useful tool for researchers because they know, when they want to look at the genetics, that they’re looking at the naturally occurring population.”

More than anything, the gardens are a public resource. Before the pandemic, botany enthusiasts from all over the world flocked to the UC Botanical Garden, intrigued by its impressive diversity. Feldman estimates that, in a typical year, around 100,000 people visit the garden, including several thousand students of all ages on educational field trips.

With the benefit of the Bay Area’s mild climate, and the help of greenhouses, the garden is able to sustain plant species from a wide variety of environments, including deserts, mountains, and tropics. “The thing that makes this garden unique is that the plants are grouped by how they’re related to each other, by their geographical location,” says Feldman. “We have an area for California plants, an area for South African plants, Asian plants, Australian plants, Mexican, South American. So, when you come to the garden, you can walk across continents by just stepping across the pathway.”

Guiding a visitor through the garden, Feldman shares stories. He points, for example, to a patch of cycads, palm-like plants that evolved 12 million years ago. They were smuggled into the state and given to the garden after being confiscated in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sting called “Operation Botany.” And there’s the Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden where traditional herbalists often come to see the actual plants from which they derive their powders and tinctures.

His own favorite spot is the Mather Redwood Grove, named for the first director of the National Parks Service, Berkeley alumnus Stephen T. Mather (1887). Nestled in the redwoods is a small amphitheater that, under non-pandemic conditions, is often used for weddings and other gatherings. Feldman plans to equip the grove with Wi-Fi so that those hoping to use the space for socially distanced celebrations in the coming months can include their friends and family over livestream.

For now, the garden is operating at limited capacity. Visitors must reserve admission slots in advance, practice physical distancing, and wear masks at all times. Despite these limitations, Feldman reports that the garden’s membership is higher than ever, with more than 4,000 dues-paying members.

The UC Botanical Garden staff are also finding ways to connect with those who can’t visit in person. On the garden’s website, they launched “House Planted,” a virtual community offering video tours, recipes (for things like chai and natural dyes), and lessons on topics ranging from cannabis to cucumbers.

“We really view our mission as being heavily involved in education,” Feldman says.

Around 350 volunteers currently work at the garden. Some train to become docents. Others operate behind the scenes, tending to plants or maintaining the seed bank, a collection of rare and endangered species to be used for conservation efforts. Recently, garden staffers were cultivating seedlings to help restore native plant populations near Mount Tamalpais. With fewer in-person visitors, staff and volunteers are using this time to make improvements, modifying pathways and repairing structures that have fallen into disrepair. The tropical greenhouse is under renovation. Once finished, it will be used to teach visitors about familiar tropical foods, including vanilla, coffee, and cocoa.

Moving forward, Feldman plans to take every opportunity to increase the UC Botanical Garden’s educational value. “We really view our mission as being heavily involved in education,” he says. “The garden is a resource which is open to the public and really belongs to the people of California. There are very few places in the world that are like this. And it’s right at their doorstep.”

From the Spring 2021 issue of California.
Image source: Melinda Young Stuart
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