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Enjoying Flora from Around the World

by Nancy Swearengen, Botanical Garden Volunteer Services Coordinator
posted August 19, 1998

After more than 100 years, Berkeley's Botanical Garden still ranks among the better-kept secrets in the East Bay.

The 34-acre site on Centennial Drive, midway between the Strawberry Canyon Recreation Area and the Lawrence Hall of Science, may seem remote. . .yet it's only five minutes from Mining Circle by campus shuttle, or easily accessible by car.

Many visitors make the trip on foot or by bike. "I love the setting," says volunteer Lee Haffter. "You have a real sense of getting away, even though the city is just down the hill."

The garden was first established in 1890 where Moffitt Undergraduate Library now stands. Vestiges of the original plantings are still there.

Threatened by the proliferation of campus buildings in the 1920s, the garden was moved to Strawberry Canyon to the site of a former dairy farm.

It now houses more than 13,000 varieties of plants, which are arranged geographically by region of origin. The New World Desert is one of the most popular areas, with its saguaro-like Trichocereus cacti towering 20 feet in the air, its fat, yellow-flowered barrel cacti and myriad different agaves.

The California section features plant communities from all over the state, including a vernal pool, a replica of the Mendocino Pygmy Forest, and typical California chaparral with many species of Manzanita.

In the beginning, the garden resembled a private research preserve for botany faculty and students. In the mid-1950s, increased numbers of faculty and grad students began using the garden for research in entomology, zoology and genetics, as well as botany.

In the late '60s, the garden became truly "user friendly," with a cadre of trained volunteer docents leading tours for school groups and garden clubs, as well as visiting scientists, campus groups and students. Most tours are by appointment, but docent tours also take place Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Self-guided theme tours feature such highlights as plants used by California Indians, or plants used for fibers and dyes.

Opportunities for academic enrichment abound in the garden. More than 700 biology students visit the garden each semester, observing and studying evolutionary principles and ecological relationships. Students from anthropology, forestry, art, architecture and even ethnic studies often visit as a class exercise, or with a specific assignment to complete.

Students in Craig Nagasawa's drawing classes learn a great deal from the garden. "The kind of knowledge derived from close observation is a wonderful gift that drawing gives," Nagasawa said. "We go to the garden and look at the plants and landscapes, but also understand that we're in a whole context -- the light, the air, the location -- that is changing all the time.

"In the drawing classes the students are from all different disciplines. The garden gives them a wonderful opportunity to get out of the classroom and to develop their powers of observation -- powers which I feel are important to the rest of their education as well."

Stephen Tobriner, professor of architectural history, takes his Architecture and Urbanism of Meso-America and South America class to the garden. "It's very important for achitects, planners, and engineers to understand our relationship to the natural environment," he says. "The garden makes it easy to understand how important aspects of the natural environment impact people of different cultures.

"Also, the garden has sections that show plant development in geographical regions, so we can trace the development of foods and learn about the relationship of food to the architecture and culture of a specific region."

As the garden's activities have broadened, so have opportunities for volunteers.

In addition to tour docents, volunteers grow and sell plants to help support the garden; operate the Garden Shop, which offers books and gifts; help the horticultural staff in the garden; and assist the curator with plant records.

"I don't know what we'd do without our many dedicated volunteers," said Associate Director of Education Jennifer White. "They are integral to the success of the garden."

The garden's conference center is becoming a popular meeting place, and its redwood grove and garden of old roses have been popular wedding sites for years.

The Botanical Garden is open every day except Christmas from 9 a.m. until 4:45 p.m. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, closing time is 7 p.m.

Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors, $1 for children. Thursdays are free for everyone. For information, call 642-2755.

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