Long before human beings assumed stewardship of the planet, there were plants. And while it is often taken for granted that people could not survive without the nutrients with which plant life directly and indirectly fuels our bodies – to say nothing about the oxygen they provide – the study of plant life is a significantly underrated field. However, key individuals in Irvine’s history have demonstrated their appreciation for our green ancestors [that’s right, we share a common ancestor from a mere 2,000 million years ago … give or take a 1,000 million]. Daniel G. Aldrich, Jr., UC Irvine’s founding chancellor, planted a citrus tree which still thrives in the midst of UC Irvine’s arboretum.

Photo by Scott Feinblatt

Since its humble beginning, the UCI Arboretum has become a 12.5-acre botanic garden and research facility; it is home to a number of plant species that are cared for by faculty adviser Dr. Peter Bowler and nursery manager Rebecca Crowe. The Irvine Weekly wanted to get a closer look, so we dropped a line and scheduled a visit to learn more about the arboretum’s history, functions and future.

Walking among the plants, we talked about how the arboretum was first developed. Bowler said, “[In 1970], the first director was Harold Koopowitz, who’s a retired professor from ecology and evolutionary biology. He was originally from South Africa and had terrific collections in South African material, [so] we have a South African Bulb Garden, many South African aloe exhibits, and so forth.”

When Koopowitz stepped down in 1996, Bowler took over. Bowler’s interest is in the California Floristic Province, which is a floristic province of the Pacific Coast, whose flora share characteristics with the flora of the Mediterranean Basin. “Since [I took over],” Bowler continued, “we built a lot of excellent biome-type displays of coastal sage scrubs, some specialized habitats,” including Baja California and the Channel Islands. “One of the great things about Arboreta is it’s like reading a book of where they were collected, by whom and when. So they’re sort of like living vouchers for what’s in an area.”

Bowler went on to explain some of the benefits of corralling various plants into one area. Specifically, he pointed out how they demonstrate their evolutionary relationships. He said, “Arboreta can give you an opportunity to show convergent evolution between unrelated plant groups. So, for example, here we have agaves – North and South America – and over here we have aloes from South Africa. And besides being similar in the basal rosette, basically these species’ leaves are like bags of water. They’re above ground water storage.” Bowler went on to explain the significance of this fact. He said, “The unique thing is that they’ve co-evolved – separately and unrelatedly – the crassulacean acid metabolism photosynthetic pathway.” As my eyes glazed over, and my mouth probably hung open, the good doctor brought home his description using enough common language that I didn’t feel too much like a dumb ape. He said, “This allows them to close their stomates during the day, when it’s really hot – when they’d just desiccate and die – and open them at night. So they sort of take a breath at night and then close during the daytime. It’s a wonderful thing. Many a cacti and so forth have it as well.”

Nursery Manager Rebecca Crowe and Faculty Adviser Dr. Peter A. Bowler – Photo by Scott Feinblatt

Naturally, the arboretum is a place of beauty that can be enjoyed without the intimate knowledge of plant life that Bowler was demonstrating, but I asked about the various functions the arboretum has for UCI students. He explained, “We get use from a number of different arenas, Developmental and Cell Biology has a class that uses it. I have two classes in Ecology that use it, and it is sort of the staging area for visitation and work done in the San Joaquin Marsh Reserve. So, people meet here and always get a tour before they go to the marsh.”

Given the beauty and variety of the arboretum’s plant life, I inquired why visitors are now required to make appointments. It turns out that the future may have a new home, or homes, in store for the arboretum. Bowler explained, “Basically, the university is looking at North Campus and has plans for possibly developing it, and the arboretum falls within that. We don’t know exactly what will happen, but, at the moment, we’re contributing plants to primarily other UC arboreta. It may well be that parts of this survive as sort of a community park or something like that. We just don’t know. We haven’t seen the plans yet.”

With fewer guests to be concerned about, there has been a decrease in the care-taking department. Bowler clarified that more people used to tend the arboretum. He explained, “We’re supported primarily by grant funding, and we are extremely limited. Rebecca’s our only heroine here, and she’s wonderful. But we’re just at a point where we don’t have the resources to keep it safe for random visitation. We’re happy to lead groups and individuals through, though, and show them where to go, which we do all the time.”

Another facet of the arboretum, which serves as a hub of another branch of studies [the puns purely accidental], is the herbarium. The herbarium benefits from a National Science Foundation Grant – which is divided among 20 herbaria – and is basically an archive of plant life; much of my guided tour took place inside this building. I learned far more about the department than I can address in this article, suffice to say the process of having collected, studied and archived plant samples for nearly 50 years [the herbarium predated the arboretum by about five years], has provided the means to study phenology, or the cycles and seasonal phenomena that occur, especially in relation to climate.

While the herbarium maintains some independence, the future of the UCI Arboretum is uncertain. What is certain is that it represents an important aspect of Irvine’s history, contains numerous exotic specimens, and is still currently available for visitation.

Folks interested in gaining further appreciation for this botanical garden, its history and its significance are encouraged to drop a line and schedule a visit. Contact information is available on the UCI Arboretum’s website.

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