Decades of tender care built the UC Botanical Garden’s Asian Collection, a first-class compilation of some of the world’s most precious plants.
Then, in the blink of an eye, a fallen giant sequoia tree turned the delicate botanical gem into a disaster zone.
Experts are gathering now the storm-ravaged placehigh in the hills above the UC Berkeley campus to pull bruised and battered plants from the wreckage in a race to save what’s left.
“I dig through the rubble to see where the plant is and what can be salvaged,” says propagator Susan Malisch. Some plants receive corrective pruning. Others are rushed back to the garden’s nursery, where cuttings can create a new generation to replicate what was lost.
The Historic Garden, as well as other Bay Area arboretums, were engulfed in a barrage of severe storms this winter, culminating in a powerful “bomb cyclone” on March 21 that brought fierce winds and pounding rains to the already saturated soil. The fallen sequoia of the UC garden severely damaged about 57 plants, such as Boehmeria japonica And Leucothoe greyanacollected from Japan’s main island of Honshu; Lobelia nummulariafrom the Philippines; Rhododendron argipeplum, from northeastern India; And Pieris formosa from Bhutan.
“It’s our job to make sure this collection lasts forever,” Andrew Doran, the garden’s director of collections, said over the buzz of chainsaws. “These plants came from the wild. They are very, very hard to get back.”
With its winding paths, flowering shrubs and towering bamboo, the Asian garden is not only a special botanical collection. It is also a research project, rich in scientific value – and a place of serene beauty.
The Asian collection is one of the oldest parts of the garden, with plants collected in the early 1900s from the expedition of Scottish explorer George Forrest and Austrian-American botanist Joseph Rock to western China and Tibet. Information about each plant in the garden is entered into a computer database under its “accession number,” which identifies when and where it was collected and by whom.
“That’s really what sets us apart from a lot of other botanic gardens,” Doran said. “If you’re a plant and you want to get into this garden, you have to have a good provenance.”
Doran was sitting at his desk the afternoon of the March storm when he heard a sickening thud. “The radio came alive,” he recalled, as concerned staffers exchanged reports. “We all know what a falling tree sounds like.”
He grabbed a hat and an umbrella and stepped out into the storm. Gone was part of a giant redwood tree that predated the garden, planted when the property was just a dairy farm. When it fell, it hit a large Buckeye tree. Both historic trees ended up in the Asian collection and were killed.
“They scored a direct hit,” he said. “It was a sea of branches and debris.”
In addition to the Asian section, there was damage to one of the three major endangered Central American spruces; the top half of the garden’s only Parana pine, a critically endangered species from Brazil; a prized eucalyptus from the Australian region of Queensland; and a cone bush with gum leaves from southern Africa. The rushing water has carved deep gullies in the gravel paths in the redwood area, the romantic location of many weddings.
Other gardens are also reporting losses. At the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanical Garden, a mature and unique Himalayan cypress was crushed.
“It didn’t just fall over. It blew to pieces,” said Martin Quigley, director of the UCSC garden, who also suffered damage to growing and nursery structures and the succulent collection.
The San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum lost a Himalayan spruce, an African cypress and a white-flowering camellia in that same March 21 storm. A total of 14 specimens, including a Chilean soapbark tree and Tasmanian pepperberry, have been killed in this winter’s storms.
A beloved old oak fell over in the Meadow of Filoli, the immaculately landscaped Woodside estate owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And the oaks’ canopies are top-heavy because this was a “mast year” for the species, which produced a huge acorn crop
At the UC Berkeley garden, the first job is to clear the debris so experts can access the damaged plant beds. This week, the fragrant scent of the garden competed with the smell of ethanol fuel as workers with chainsaws carefully chopped branches. A parade of volunteers carried the rubbish away.
It is impossible to accurately estimate the toll so soon after the storm. Plants don’t die like humans. For example, an upright tree may look good but fail later.
Or it may look dead and then spring back. For example, many ferns look battered, but they will recover. The garden’s once-elegant bamboo forest is battered – but because bamboo is a grass, it will regenerate.
When the cuttings arrive for Malisch propagation care, they are first treated with chemicals to repel microorganisms or fungi. Then they are dipped in a hormone to stimulate rooting, stuck in special soil and placed on a “fog bank”, routinely bathed in gentle mist. Different plants require different techniques.
Then it’s a waiting game. She studies them for promising signs of new green growth on top or roots on the bottom.
“Sometimes it takes a few weeks. Sometimes it takes a few months,” she says. Conifers, cones and coniferous plants can last for years. Sometimes things go wrong.”
An ailing Nepalese orchid – uprooted and broken into two clumps, with scars and scraped leaves – is being pampered.
A precious rhododendron was crushed, but Malisch found a piece that still had roots. It was covered in mud and the leaves hung down. Now it shines and stretches to the sky.
“This may be our only chance, so I brought the best stuff I could find,” she said. “It looks much better than when it arrived. It’s brightened up.”
Even during the cleanup, more damage could be done, Doran worries. He fears for the future of a charming maple tree from China’s Sichuan province, who survived the injury but is left vulnerable when crews and heavy equipment, including a crane, cut down the remains of the towering redwood.
He hopes to salvage pieces of the downed redwood so it can be milled and turned into benches, beams, or a new Japanese-style pavilion.
In time, the garden will be restored with the increased youngsters. The injured elderly will heal. New species, such as camellia and Japanese snowdrop, can be introduced.
“All is not lost,” Doran said. “It’s an opportunity to completely rethink the collection, without the shadow of this huge tree.”
“But it’s just going to take a long time,” he said. “Perhaps not in our lifetime.”