Video Observer: California Botanic Garden in Claremont Has a Connection to North Orange County

California Botanic Garden in Claremont Has a Connection to North Orange County

Did you know that the largest garden in the world devoted to California native plants is only a drive away from Fullerton? I didn’t until I visited California Botanic Garden in Claremont with friends. Formerly known as Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, this 86-acre collection of plants hasn’t always been in the location that it is today.

According to California Botanic Garden’s website, the gardens have been at the forefront of California native plant conservation, research, horticulture, and celebration since their inception in 1927. It was founded as Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden by Susanna Bixby Bryant, who “saw the increasing pressure exerted by development on California’s native plants and habitats.” She was “concerned about the preservation of California’s diverse plants,” so she reserved 200 acres of her Santa Ana Canyon Ranch near Yorba Linda as a native plant garden in memory of her father, John William Bixby. Susanna Bixby Bryant consulted with California botanists and horticulturalists at the top of their field, including Theodore Payne, Willis Linn Jepson, and Ernest Braunton, as she planned, prepared, and established her plant collections. According to the California Botanic Garden’s website, she served as director until her death in 1946.

Three years prior, a devastating fire powered by Santa Ana winds brushed through her Orange County garden. Landslides and erosion caused by winter rains also dealt major damage. After Bixby-Bryant’s death, a former Pomona botany professor named Dr. Phillip Munz was appointed garden director. Knowing that the Santa Ana Ranch land might not be permanently available and wanting a more accessible site, he arranged to relocate California Botanic Garden to Claremont. So, in 1951, seeds and plants were transported in one-gallon cans from the Orange County site to the new location on Indian Hill Mesa. Interestingly, the centuries-old live oaks that now border the garden’s eastern mesa, and a few sycamores along the old creek that is now the East Alluvial Garden, are all that remain of the original vegetation.

Bixby-Bryant’s garden was devoted to “growing and fostering an appreciation of native flora,” a mission that the current garden and collections in Claremont carry on today. Located at 1500 N. College Avenue, California Botanic Garden was a founding member of the Center for Plant Conservation, a consortium of North American institutions working to preserve native plant species. It is an accredited member of the American Public Gardens Association, one of the first botanic gardens to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, and happens to be home to Claremont Graduate University’s master’s and Ph.D. programs in Botany.

Spread out over 86 acres; the grounds are grouped into three main sections: SoCal Gardens, Mesa Gardens, and the largest area, California Habitats. After parking and purchasing tickets at the entrance booth, my friends and I followed the pathway around a wildflower meadow and into the Desert Garden, where we saw a variety of flowering cacti, along with other spiky, tough, and successful desert plants that know how to beat the heat. Moving down the main path, we walked by the Mountain Stream Garden, where we briefly learned how to hydro zone a garden.

Further, down the path, we encountered a number of California Fan Palms, which provide native owls a safe place to roost and gulp down a mouse or vole. We learned how indigenous peoples in California’s southern deserts would use palm fronds for thatching their roofs and make use of the fibers for basket weaving. In the Channel Islands Garden, we saw some remarkable endangered plants, including Island Ironwood, the last surviving member of a group that once grew across the Southwest.

At the Forest Pavilion, we saw rock-lined dry beds called swales, which are designed to receive and hold the rainwater that runs off hard surfaces, giving the water more time to soak into the ground instead of flowing away. Within the same area was a wall made exclusively out of rocks, separating the pavilion from the maintenance yard. Nearby, there was a recreated Tongva village; Native Californians like the Tongva have long loved native plants, respecting them as kin.

Moving forward, we came across the garden’s Majestic Oak, which was a gigantic California Live Oak tree with umbrella-like branches covering a wide area. The 55-acre California Habitats section was filled with drought-resistant plants. From chaparral to pines, California native plants create their own wild communities and provide vital habitats for wildlife. In this part of the garden, the staff maintains conservation groves to save rare and endangered species, such as California Walnuts and Nutall’s Scrub Oaks, which are mainly found in coastal sage habitats in southern California.

Throughout the one-mile paved loop trail, we saw Bay Laurels, Conifers, Coastal Sage Scrub, plants native to Baja California and the Channel Islands, Joshua Trees, a Pinyon-Juniper woodland, more Fan Palms, Chaparral, and more California Oaks. Many smaller paths that we didn’t have time to explore branched off the main trail. Also, there are no restrooms or water fountains in the California Habitats area. Following the interconnected path up a hill next to an oak grove, we entered the Mesa Gardens, where a variety of outdoor art installations, California native plant gardens, galleries, paths, and ponds could be found.

On the mesa, I really enjoyed seeing Coast Redwoods, the world’s tallest trees, and the official state tree of California, which, according to signage, can grow up to five feet a year. These redwoods were a part of the Sensory Loop Trail. The larger paved path took us by a reflecting pond, which was oddly calming; a wildlife pond, where we spotted some turtles and heard birds; a water-wise garden, where home gardeners can take some inspiration; a sage garden and gallery, and a Native Designs flower garden, where volunteers grow their own flowers for native plant arrangement. In the Sage Garden, I learned that California is home to approximately 25 species of sage, which are appreciated by bees, butterflies, birds, and other types of wildlife for their nectar and seeds. The Mesa Gardens had excellent hilltop views of the surrounding desert and California Native gardens. Overall, the 86-acre California Botanic Garden is an excellent place for residents to visit with family and friends.

Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors (65+) and students (with ID), and $4 for children (aged 3-12). Members and children (2 and under) can get in for free. The last admission is 30 minutes before closing. Staff recommends that public visitors pre-purchase tickets online and check their website for current hours at