Like so many botanic gardens before it, the botanic garden at the University of California Riverside began as a teaching garden. Originally called the “Life Sciences Experimental Area”, the garden was not open to the public and was established for school use only. The garden’s second director, Dr. George W. Gillett (1967-1973), began the garden’s public life in 1969 by conducting tours for special interest groups. Today the 51-year old garden is open to the public everyday except holidays.
Designed to support teaching, research and the extension of knowledge, the reach of this small garden extends far beyond campus. While used frequently by students studying biology, botany, the humanities and art, the interdisciplinary garden is also popular with local gardeners, naturalists and families.
For thirty-four of the garden’s fifty-one years, its relationship with the public has been cultivated by the Friends of the University of Riverside Botanic Gardens. The Friends group hosts wildly popular plant sales each spring and fall and hosts an elegant celebration of art, music, food and wine called Primavera in the Garden. Held each May, this year’s event will feature wineries from Temecula, food from local restaurants and art.
In commemoration of its 50th anniversary, the Friends started a Children’s Education Fund in 2013 to establish programing for children and families. This very small and emerging fund joins the garden’s other small funds supporting the rose garden and the butterfly garden.
Notice the emphasis on the word small in the previous paragraph. I bring attention to this word intentionally because I was surprised to learn that even though the garden is at a world-class educational institution, it has been operating on dangerously limited funds its entire existence.
The idea to establish a botanic garden was proposed in 1954 by botany professor, Dr. Victor Goodman. While the idea for a garden received support, funds weren’t allocated for another eight years. The garden was founded one year later in 1963 under the directorship of Dr. Frank Vasek. For most of its existence, the Garden has had a staff of two people. Today there are three staff members and the Garden’s Director, Dr. J. Giles Waines, who works 1/4 time. Most of the $200,000 the Garden receives from the University is used to pay for staff. After salaries and benefits are paid, very little remains. Maintenance is a never-ending expense. As a result, what remains from the University’s contribution, plus about $200,000 earned by the Friends group, is used to pay for maintenance and other expenses associated with keeping the garden open to the public.
Nestled in a hillside canyon in the southeast corner of campus, the botanic garden is a fantastic outdoor classroom. It features a cross-section of native plants and plants that grow well in the Inland Empire. Horticultural collections feature California native plants and trees, a rose garden, an herb garden, a cactus garden, a subtropical fruit orchard, a lilac garden and a collection of more than 150 bearded iris cultivars. Also featured are plants from South Africa, the southwest, the Sierra foothills, Australia and Baja California. The garden has a pond, a geodesic lath dome and is a nature preserve with more than four miles of hiking trails covering rolling and rural terrain.
The garden’s unique collections are introduced to the public through docent-led tours and school tours. Dr. Waines is happy to report that students from local high schools, Riverside Community College and Cal Baptist University, are visiting in greater numbers.
The only area where the Garden is not seeing its attendance grow is with the general public. Contributing to this significantly is the fact that this 40-acre outdoor classroom does not offer programs and workshops year-round because of its small staff and the dire need to hire an Education Director to oversee the creation of public programs, especially programs for school children. Dr. Waines says the need for additional staffing and funding are the Garden’s biggest challenges.
After speaking with Dr. Waines and learning more about the history of UCRBG, I left our meeting bothered that the garden is in such a tight spot. They need money to increase the staff, yet don’t have the people-power to create more events that might result in increased revenue. Without additional funding, little can be done to move the UCR Botanic Gardens forward. Dr. Waines says he hopes the University will be able to one day offer more support for the garden, which is the only museum on campus open to the public on weekends.
The most support the garden receives is from those already committed to the garden and who are well aware of what the garden has to offer. An example of this kind of support was announced last year. In February 2014, it was announced the garden received a bequest from Dr. Victor Goodman, UCR’s first botanist, and his wife, Marjorie. The $1.3 million received from the Goodman estate will be placed in an endowment and will be used to complete specific garden projects. While these funds may be helpful in seeing the completion of certain maintenance projects, it does not get to the heart of what the garden needs, which is additional support staff and someone to establish year-round programing.
The UCR Botanic Gardens is one of Riverside’s hidden gems and is a wonderful way to begin learning about plants and the environment. It deserves more support and attention than it is receiving. If you live in Riverside or the Inland Empire, I encourage you to visit the garden and to explore its collections. When you visit, stop by the message board at the entrance to pick up a free map and to learn about upcoming events and what’s blooming in the garden. While in the welcome area, you can also purchase a guide to the colonial herb garden ($1) and a copy of Deserts of the Southwest ($2), an informative publication created specifically for the self-guided tour.
The UCR Botanic Gardens is located in the southeast corner of campus. From the 60 Freeway, exit Martin Luther King Drive and enter the campus at the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and Canyon Crest Drive (map). The UCRBG is open daily from 8 AM – 5 PM. The parking lot at the entrance has a modest parking fee (25¢ per hour). Overflow parking is in UCR Lot 10 (University parking rates apply in this lot). Admission is free. A donation of $5 per family is suggested.
Plants, Life, Riverside is an ongoing interpretive project about plants in the urban landscape of Riverside, CA.