Botanical Garden celebrates 125 years of research, romance

During its 125 years of existence, the University of California Botanical Garden has served as a haven for endangered plants rescued from smugglers, a lab for studying climate change, biomagnetism and hummingbirds’ territorial behavior, a seed bank, a classroom for children and an idyllic backdrop for weddings.

Children and adults explore the garden.

Children and adults explore the natural world at the UC Botanical Garden. (UC Botanical Garden photo)

The garden, home to one of the oldest, largest and most diverse collections in the United States, kicks off its anniversary celebration on Sunday (June 28) with music, cupcakes, lemonade and gelato at its 34-acre site overlooking San Francisco Bay.

The launch will be followed throughout the year by free public lectures and tours highlighting the UC Botanical Garden’s research, plant conservation, education and its promotion of a deep appreciation of the great outdoors.

In the first talk in the anniversary series, Andrew Doran, assistant director for collections and curator for cultivated plants at the University and Jepson Herbaria, will explore the garden’s plant discoveries over the years and its contributions to conservation, and share with the wider world plants otherwise known only through the paper trails of catalogs.

Other events in the lineup include presentations on the garden’s rare and endangered plants and on plant conservation in action. Other regular programming includes bird and butterfly walks, summer concerts, sick plant clinics, sales of drought-tolerant plants grown at the garden, spider hunts, sunset strolls, basket weaving and papyrus-making demonstrations using garden plants, and kids’ summer camps.

The garden was established on campus in 1890, as Edward L. Greene, an Episcopalian cleric as well as a botany professor, took the helm as the garden’s first director. Within two years, it sported colorful beds of native annuals, perennials, a few trees and shrubs and 600 kinds of native plants. Today its population includes more than 12,000 different species and subspecies of plants mostly collected from the wild, with almost 700 rare or endangered species, presented largely according to their natural geographic distribution around the globe.

Despite the garden’s steady expansion and a long litany of contributions to the resurrection of endangered plants — such as the Baker’s larkspur in neighboring Marin County and the flowering Mount Diablo buckwheat propagated in garden facilities —  garden director Paul Licht often laments that the garden remains an unfortunately well-kept secret.

But that may be changing.

In recent years, the garden has implemented a wide range of public programs incorporating its focus on nature with new partners including poets, musicians, artists and architects. The number of paid admissions by adult and senior visitors has climbed from about 19,000 in 2009 to just over 21,000 in 2013 and about 27,500 in 2014. Attendance was boosted in 2013 by the rainy season love fest of amphibious newts in the garden’s Japanese pool, and by the dramatic transfer of the Julia Morgan Building from campus; and again in 2014 by the rare blooming of the Andes native, the towering Puya raimondi.

The UC Botanical Garden of the future, said Licht, will be an integral part of the Berkeley Global Campus, hosting flora from around the world and from as-yet-undiscovered frontiers, as well as a virtual collection accessible from anywhere.

He predicts that garden specimens will travel to the outer reaches of space to determine what will thrive in new habitats, while collaborations between researchers and industry will enable the Botanical Garden to expand its collection and generate new specimens for medicinal and nutrient development critical for the planet’s survival.

“Above all,” said Licht, “the garden will continue to serve as a tranquil retreat and a living museum to safeguard priceless new, rare and endangered species for coming generations.”

The 1-4 p.m. garden party on Sunday is $12.50 for garden members. The cost for non-members is $25 for adults and $5 for children between 5 and 12. Children under 5 are admitted for free. Registration is available online.


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  • Watch a YouTube video about the Botanical Garden’s pioneering work to save the almost-extinct Baker’s larkspur in Marin County
  • Free, docent-led tours are offered with paid admission at 1:30 p.m. every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday
  • Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 65 and older and non-Berkeley students, $5 for juniors 13 to 17, $2 for kids between 5 and 12, and free for those under the age of 5. The first Wednesday of every month is free. Garden admission is always free to UC Berkeley faculty, staff and students with campus ID
  • The garden is open daily 9 a.m.- 5 p.m., but closed the first Tuesday of each month
  • Directions to the garden are online