Campus preserve nurtures plants, people
You may already know about it - stumbled upon it or heard via the grapevine how to get to it.
Enter on a footpath located just past the roaring traffic on LeConte Avenue just west of Hilgard. A little farther north on Tiverton, there's another entrance opposite the busy UCLA Medical Center emergency room. Or head for the third entryway on the northernmost end: Walk past the clutches of smokers on the sidewalks near the Dental School, down the short driveway toward the Botany Building and through the gate and ... ahhhh! You've arrived.
Whatever gateway you chose to cross over to this special place, welcome to the green, lush, fragrant-with-earthy-scents Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden, an oasis of peace and tranquility in the heart of car-choked West Los Angeles.
Professor Arthur Gibson has directed the garden since the 1980s.
The seven-acre site on the southeast side of campus serves as a "biodiverse refugium," as the garden's director, Arthur C. Gibson, professor of organismic biology, ecology and evolution, describes it. It's home to some 5,000 species of tropical and subtropical plants from around the world, as well as frogs, turtles, goldfish, streams and even a waterfall.
"We hear visitors refer to our garden as 'the best-kept secret on campus,' " Gibson said.
It's clear this spring that the secret is out. On any given day, visitors, including UCLA employees, stroll the garden's sloping pathways, enjoy picnic lunches or sit on benches reading or meditating. Schoolchildren march through on tours, breaking away from their guides to look for frogs. Visitors sometimes celebrate birthdays in the garden. Some have proposed marriage there, and couples have exchanged wedding vows under the leafy canopy.
Gibson wants even more people to visit. He wishes, above all, that visitors come to view the botanical garden as a "living museum," a place to "learn about plants and develop a greater appreciation for the relevance of plants to society and to their lives."
For instance, visitors might stand in awe of the tallest dawn redwood in North America, which grows near the center of the garden beside a stream. The Metasequoia was once thought to be a fossil until it was found growing in central China in 1944. That glorious tree sprouted from seeds from China planted in the garden in 1948, according to a brochure available at the entry gate.
Or, one might discover that cycads, a number of which are growing in the garden's west-central section, were widespread when dinosaurs roamed the earth, but now thrive only in tropical and subtropical habitats.
The botanical garden came into being unofficially in 1929, shortly after the university began classes in Westwood with a total of four buildings. Next to the Physics-Biology Building (since renamed Kinsey Hall) was an arroyo, a small, sandy, dry streambed lined by low, woody sage and willow trees. Professor Olenus L. Sponsler, a botany instructor who anticipated the need for a garden for teaching and research, planted the arroyo with trees and shrubs.
In ensuing years, additional plants donated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Huntington Botanical Gardens and other sources were planted the length of the arroyo, which ran parallel to Hilgard down to LeConte. Of special interest in the garden's early decades were eucalyptus and ficus trees, which hadn't yet been widely planted throughout Los Angeles. Two Eucalyptus grandis trees, natives of the Australian rain forest, were planted in the garden 40 years ago and now are among the tallest specimens in the United States.
Over the years, portions of the original garden inevitably gave ground to campus construction. In the 1950s, with world-renowned horticulturist Mildred Mathias at the helm, the garden was officially recognized by the UC regents as a distinct campus facility. Located in close proximity to the Botany, Life Sciences and Plant Physiology buildings, it became an experimental site for such subtropical trees as palms, succulents, aquatics and camellias.
When Gibson became director in the 1980s, the garden was thriving, though not in a way he considered altogether good.
"When I came, it was basically woods, a forest with lots of trees, lots of shade," he recalled. Gibson cleared away some of the trees and added more sun-loving plants, building on the garden's rich potential for supporting a wide range of plant life.
"We have a special climatic niche," said Gibson, who as a botanist has conducted research in the deserts of Africa, the rain forests of Costa Rica and the high-elevation White Mountains of California. "We're four miles from the ocean, and we get extra heat from the buildings around us, so we're not likely to ever freeze. We can grow things here outdoors that very, very few gardens in the U.S. can. You can do it in Hawaii, in Florida and here at UCLA."
The botanical garden is primarily a "green garden," Gibson explained.
"We're not trying to show off flowers," he said. "When you come here, you really get a feeling of a woodsy, forested area rather than a lot of showy flowers."
The garden is also "green" in the sense that almost no pesticides are used, a practice that helps maintain the balance of plant, insect and animal life. And, although there's a built-in watering system, water is used sparingly.
"We just make those plants tough it out, and if they do, fine," Gibson said. "If they don't, we'll have to try something else."
While no major botanical research is currently conducted in the garden, a few experiments are under way. For one, the shrub Deppea splendens, a member of the coffee family, is presumed to be extinct in the wild, but Gibson has successfully cultivated it here - so successfully, in fact, that a pair of cross-pollinated plant clones have developed fruit and seeds.
In recent years, the garden has added special collections of such plant groups as Malesian rhododendrons, the lily alliance, bromeliads, cycads, ferns, Mediterranean-type climate shrubs such as chaparral and native plants of the Hawaiian Islands. But Gibson is in no hurry to pull out old plants to replace them with new ones.
"After all, once you get a magnificent specimen, you're not going to take it out and put in something else," he reasoned. "We have what we call 'old bones,' tall, old trees that form the backdrop of the garden."
Yet Gibson is not willing to let the garden stand static, a relic of the past with no future. He envisions adding an outdoor rain forest, open to all the elements. He even has a site in mind, the slope near Hershey Hall.
"A novel idea? Yes," he conceded. But an idea he bases on scientific and educational grounds. "We could try to grow plants from Costa Rica. We could talk about natural ecosystems and the importance of saving them. It could open up new avenues of research on tropical plants."
In the meantime, the garden carries on with a slim staff of five caretakers and some 30 UCLA students, staff, faculty and Westwood neighbors who volunteer a few hours each week to weed and prune, among other tasks.
Ultimately, Gibson said, "I would like it to be the 'neighborhood garden' for the people of Westwood, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica. There is no other garden like this one. I'd like families to come here, spend a couple of hours, then go down to Westwood and have lunch, make a day of it."
Letting more people in on the secret of the botanical garden does have its risks, Gibson admitted. Here and there, vandals have carved initials into benches and bamboo, and some have stolen plants outright. But, for the most part, visitors who walk through the gates are respectful.
"People who come here," Gibson said, "they can sense the reverence of the garden."