Jules Cooch’s K-12 students stared in awe at UCLA’s botanical garden, wondering why it didn’t look like any particular natural phenomena they had seen before. They saw a combination of seemingly mismatched elements from different natural sources that made the garden seem like a completely new phenomenon.
“The garden we’ve created here is not like any specific place on earth,” said Cooch, the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden.
Botanical gardens have long been the sites of wild weeds, foreign flowers and stunning shrubbery – each one an amalgamation of ecosystems near and far, textures sharp and smooth, and histories tumultuous and tame.
UCLA’s botanical garden reflects two major themes: plant evolution and biogeography. Plant evolution refers to how the plants are related to one another while biogeography categorizes the plants based on where in the world they occur. This organization allows visitors to feel as if they’ve traveled the world within the roughly eight acres of the garden, Cooch said.
“As you walk through the garden, you can be in what feels like the desert of South Africa, and you can be in a jungle in Thailand and in the Eucalyptus forests of Australia,” said Evan Meyer, assistant director at the garden.
It is only appropriate that the garden got its name from a lady whose love of natural diversity knew no boundaries.
Mildred Esther Mathias bashed through the boundaries of botany both by defying conceptions about the role of women in science and by dispelling the ambiguity around the poorly named New World Umbelliferae, which are part of the carrot family. She traversed the western United States, publishing scientific papers and describing new species, before accepting a staff position at UCLA, where she also served as director of the garden for 18 years.
First-time gardengoers might be interested in taking a look at the desert garden located up a hill on the eastern side of the garden. Dry, sunny and arid, the desert is home to plants that differ significantly from the lush flora in the tropical parts of the garden. For instance, the garden hosts a number of varieties of aloe; the Fan Aloe, with its pink flowers protruding out into a fan-like shape gives new meaning to aloe’s cooling properties. There’s also a vast South African Aloe collection, created by colors that look like those of an early sunset and leaves that curl outward and down into asymmetrical stars.
“It looks almost like a Dr. Seuss book – just this bizarre, otherworldly kind of garden,” Meyer said.
To go back in time, one can take a walk in the ancient forest, whose spore-bearing ferns are some of the earth’s most primitive seed plants. The unique thing about these trees is that they’re flowerless – similar to the ones that existed more than 200 million years ago, before the evolution of flowers. The shade cast by the Montezuma cypresses is cool, but not cold; it seems to be balanced by the blanket-like qualities of the hanging leaves.
The stream that runs through the center of the garden is an interesting observation site for animal lovers. Turtles, koi and crayfish swim in the water, but don’t forget to look to the sky to see birds that fly overhead.
The animals in the garden aren’t just there for recreational observation – some are the subjects of studies.
Amanda Robin is a doctoral student working in the lab of Peter Nonacs studying how different social factors impact a squirrel’s decision to eat or store food.
Robin said the botanical garden serves as a place to pilot her experiment and practice the skills she will need when she studies squirrels in the wilderness.
“You have this living laboratory right on South Campus, and they’re extremely open to having student researchers running projects in order to learn more about the garden in general, so it’s a really big secret resource,” Robin said.
The garden also provides a space to expand the curriculum of some UCLA courses outside the classroom. For example, the outdoor amphitheater becomes the stage for theater performances. Biology students often observe interactions between the abiotic and biotic factors of the garden, and even literature students benefit from having an outdoor space for poetry readings.
“(The garden) runs the full spectrum of people who are just taking a scroll at lunch to people who are here every day documenting the plants and animals,” Meyer said.
Cooch said she wants the garden to inspire students to bring more nature into their lives. You don’t have to be an environmental trailblazer to vouch for its protection. The more we incorporate nature into architecture, business development, engineering and other fields, the more value we assign to it.
Nestled in the suburbs of the second-most populous urban area in the US, the garden provides an escape from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles life.
“When you’re in the city, you see these big buildings and you see steel and concrete, and everything is sort of these long, sweeping views; then you come in here and everything is intricate and intimate and idiosyncratic and organic,” Meyer said.
These idiosyncrasies provide visitors with the opportunity to find beauty in imperfection. The garden is a place to seek refuge from the stark geometry of the urban world.
There are a lot of universities that have botanical gardens located miles away at remote research stations, Meyer said. But ours is conveniently located at our doorstep.
Meyer wants students to take advantage of our “little oasis of biodiversity.” Students can get involved by becoming volunteer gardeners and doing hands-on work with the plants or by joining the docent program, where they will learn to interpret the different parts of the garden to visitors who don’t know much about them.
If for nothing else, students are always welcome to use the garden to escape writer’s block, to allow the breeze to turn the pages of textbooks forsaken in procrastination, or to bask in nature’s quietude.
“We have an opportunity to redefine what nature means,” Cooch said.
In an age where forests are being decimated and wildlife extinguished at rates that could deprive the next generation of their right to enjoy them, we must learn to take advantage of nature in a nondestructive way.
“Here’s a way you can do it in the middle of the city … being able to understand and appreciate nature is really important as the world is getting more complicated, more technological,” Meyer said.