Campus & community, Campus news

Two beloved UC Berkeley trees, over age 150, damaged in ‘bomb cyclone’

At the UC Botanical Garden, part of a redwood sheared off and flattened a buckeye

Andrew Doran, the UC Botanical Garden's director of collections, looks up from the ground at a tall redwood tree that was damaged in the March 21 storm.

Andrew Doran, the UC Botanical Garden’s director of collections, surveys storm damage to a coast redwood that is believed to be more than 150 years old. (UC Berkeley photo by Marissa Gutierrez)

The loud crack came at 4:30 p.m. last Tuesday, when Andrew Doran was in his office at the 34-acre UC Botanical Garden in Strawberry Canyon. It was audible despite the ferociously high winds and pelting rain creating havoc throughout the Bay Area that day as part of a rare, so-called “bomb cyclone.”

Doran, the director of collections, went out to investigate, “but after wrecking my umbrella and losing a hat,” he said, “I decided it was unwise.” He did glimpse the tip of the property’s treasured, towering coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) — at more than 150 years old, it predates the garden — and snapped a photo. One of the coniferous tree’s three co-dominant trunks had been sheared off.

A California buckeye tree in the UC Botanical Garden on a clear day, before it was crushed in a storm by the falling trunk of a redwood tree. The buckeye has a gnarled trunk.

The garden’s California buckeye, before it was struck down by the sheared-off trunk of a neighboring coast redwood. (UC Botanical Garden photo)

The next morning, the news was more catastrophic. That broken redwood trunk had landed on another garden icon, a California buckeye (Aesculus californica), which also lived on the land before the garden was formally established in 1890. And there was widespread damage among the garden’s plant collections, including to a section of timber bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides) by another of the redwood’s three trunks, or stems, that had blown off and flown through the air toward Strawberry Creek.

In addition, one of three large, endangered spruce trees (Picea martinezii) was damaged, as was the top half of the garden’s only Parana pine (Araucaria angustifolia), trunks of red ash (Alphitonia excelsa) and Durikai malee (Eucalyptus infera), and a gum-leaf cone bush (Leucadendron eucalyptifolium).

The garden, among the most diverse landscapes in the world — it’s arranged geographically into nine regions of naturalistic plantings — has more than 10,000 types of plants, including many rare and endangered species.

“Decades of care and nurturing of some of the garden’s treasures have been destroyed,” said Doran.

An oak tree, uprooted by the strong winds in March 2023, lies on the ground near the Grinnell path area.

This fallen oak, along the Grinnell Pathway, was among 20 trees on the central campus that were damaged by the recent storms. (UC Berkeley photo by Robert Sanders)

Meanwhile, on Berkeley’s central campus, the gales damaged about 20 trees, including oaks, eucalyptus and pines.

“Most of the trees were eucalyptus, and the root cause was years of drought stress, high winds, saturated soil and shallow roots, said Felix Deleon, director of operations for Facilities Services, adding that the condition of the trees is is being assessed.

The campus core is home to more than 13,500 trees and nearly 300 different tree species.

A very tall, old redwood tree in the UC Botanical Garden has a major section ripped off, exposing bark, following the March 21, 2023 storm. The sky is blue with clouds, and the photo was taken looking up from the ground.

The redwood is likely beyond saving and “poses a significant hazard to people and plants in the area,” says Andrew Doran. (UC Berkeley photo by Robert Sanders)

The botanical garden, too, is now actively assessing the overall damage there with the help of horticulturists, arborists and UC Berkeley tree crews to determine what actions need to be taken. Doran said the redwood is likely damaged beyond saving and “poses a significant hazard to people and plants in the area.”

“Removing the fallen branches and the remaining trees is going to be a significant challenge, with the (steep, hilly) topography, and being so far from a road where a crane could be used,” he added. “It will be very disruptive to the surviving plants (near the tree), so much so that they may need to be temporarily moved.”

Staff members are restricting visitors’ access to the location of the redwood and buckeye so they can quickly document the damage — including to plants beneath the two trees — and determine whether those plants need pruning, propagating, a new location or can’t be saved. All sections of the garden’s understory are densely planted, due to limited space.

“We will have to work fast, as plants are starting to break winter dormancy, and the window for moving them into containers or other positions is closing,” said Doran, who added that the work will take the staff “hundreds of hours.”

Yellow caution tape keeps visitors from the site of the damaged trees in the Botanical Garden

Caution tape prevents UC Botanical Garden visitors from getting near the areas where, in record-breaking winds and heavy rain, the redwood trunk crushed the buckeye. (UC Berkeley photo by Marissa Gutierrez)

The coast redwood and the California buckeye, which bore a strong resemblance to the buckeye in Faculty Glade, had been growing on land that was planted in the 1920s as the Asian section of the garden.

“The loss of this coast redwood is particularly poignant, being located close to its Asian relative, the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) planted in the 1940s,” said Doran. “Their proximity was useful for pointing out evolutionary relationships between these two species to students and visitors.”

Doran said that despite the damage at the botanical garden, those who work there understand that “these events, while unfortunate, are part of managing a living museum,” as are tasks that include keeping records of flowering and fruiting times, documenting the research done at the garden, taking photos and making specimens.

“And if the redwood is taken down to a stump,” he said, “it could make for a good interpretive platform.”

The garden remains open to the public seven days a week, with the exception of the first and third Tuesdays of each month.