Wander with a Naturalist


We invite you to explore the Garden with a botanical expert as your guide. Brief 3-5 minute interviews with renowned naturalists offer a fresh perspective to the plants that surround you here. Listen while you walk, or find one of our seating areas to relax and enjoy. The numbers on the map offer a suggested route.


1. Introduction – Victoria Sork and Mildred E. Mathias

Victoria Sork: My name is Victoria Sork and I have the privilege of being the director of the Mildred E. Matthias Botanical Garden. In many ways, I think about the garden as a living museum. I know that people walk around museums and they are curious, about how the experts interpret the art. That inspired me to ask the experts who have spent time at the UCLA botanical garden—how do they think about plants and nature and share that with our visitors. Mildred E. Matthias was an internationally renowned botanist. It was Mildred who first introduced the notion of creating biogeographic regions within the garden. The mission of the garden to promote teaching, education, and public enjoyment became established when Mildred E. Mathias became the director. I thought it would be useful for you to hear Mildred E. Mathias in her own words.

Mildred E. Mathias: The garden is organized somewhat geographically and somewhat ecologically. So, the hilltop up here is our tropics. It’s the warmest spot in the garden. The primary reason for a botanical garden on a university campus is to have a place where one can teach the students. So it’s not a display garden, and the display is only incidental. It is an extremely useful teaching garden, as well as a garden where a number of interesting plants have been made available to the public. Come and walk through a peaceful garden here.

Victoria Sork: I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from Mildred, and I hope you enjoy the other commentaries during your visit to the garden.

2. Unique + Endangered Hawaiian Flora – Tom Gillespie

Victoria Sork: Let me introduce you to Professor Tom Gillespie. Tom has been studying tropical forests throughout the world, looking at patterns of species diversity.  He is particularly enthusiastic and incredibly insightful about plants of  Hawaii.

Tom Gillespie: I mean, if I was just going to talk about the Botanical Gardens here, what really is spectacular is outside of Hawaii, this is the biggest outdoor collection of Hawaiian plants anywhere where in the world, which is pretty impressive.  And it’s just really invaluable for me because I can show students slides, but if I can take them outside and actually show them the plants, there’s just a better connection , I think they appreciate that. And you are saving the actual genetic information by keeping it here, collecting seeds, propagating it. That’s a huge service. As you come up, the Hawaii section, the first thing that you’ll usually see blooming is a red hibiscus the Hibiscus clayii, or Clay’s hibiscus. The reason it’s so stunning is in 1994, there were only four plants in the wild. And then in 2011 they found an additional 120 plants. And it only occurs in the dry forest of Hawaii. To actually see it in the wild, is almost impossible.  Right here we have four or five individuals, which is really stunning. Across from the bench , you’ll see the Hibiscus brackenridgii. That doesn’t look like much, but  in the spring time it will have a beautiful yellow flower . And  that’s the Hawaiian state flower. It’s on the endangered species list and there’s only about 300 individuals in the wild.  The island of Lanai only has one individual. You kind of get an idea of the challenges that native plants face. Just imagine if our state flower was on the endangered species list. Right behind the stone bench—this is the Loulu palm. There are 23 endemic species to Hawaii, and  they’re all in the same genus Pritchardia. It’s got a fan like palm.  You can see slight hairs on the underside, that’s one of these characteristics of the Pritchardia.  This one is really amazing, Pritchardia hilabrandii.  It used to be everywhere on the Island of Molokai, but it went locally extinct when Polynesians brought fire and Europeans brought cattle. So it was discovered on just two rocks outside of Molokai. In Hawaii, 90% of the plants are endemic, meaning they occur there and no where else in the world. And Hawaii is just full of endangered species.  It just shows you the real challenges that people are having in Hawaii, maintaining natural populations that regenerate and the gardens has a whole bunch of them here. Dude, it’s just an amazing collection!

3. Mediterranean Climate Ecosystems – Phil Rundel

Victoria Sork: Let me introduce Dr. Phil Rundell. Phil was director of the botanical garden for seven years. He’s an internationally renowned  botanist and an expert in Mediterranean-type ecosystems, which  is one of the predominant ecosystems of California.
Phil Rundell: One of the reasons that California is such a nice place to live is because of the climate.  If you think about it, our climate is similar to the Mediterranean basin.  It’s a climate where we have warm dry summers, and cool wet winters. That’s quite unusual. Most areas of the world, the wet season is the summer season, and the winter is the drier season,  or there’s scattered rain all year long.
There are only a few areas in the world that have the Mediterranean type climate:  California, the Mediterranean  basin of Europe, central Chile, the Cape region of South Africa, and South Western Australia. And if you look at a map, you can see these five areas share the condition of being the western margin of continental landmasses, between about 30 and 40 degrees North and South latitude.
One of the special things about Mediterranean climates is that they are extremely important biodiversity hotspots, unusually high in plant diversity and have unique plant species that occurs nowhere else in the world.
Each of the five regions has a  dominant vegetation-type, which is an evergreen leathery-leaved shrubland– in California it’s called chaparral–and these shrublands burn very readily.
Fire’s a natural part of the environment in these areas.  And Part of our life here in California. More so every year.  Fire is certainly a major environmental impact in all five Mediterranean regions. Most of our fire comes in the late summer when we get dry winds and, occasional thunderstorms.
Fire is something that the vegetation has to be adjusted to. When Mediterranean climates first evolved 10 to 15 million years ago, most species would not be adapted to fire. By generating different mechanisms of reproduction that could sustain their populations with a natural fire cycle: like reseeding after a fire, having seeds in the soil that germinate, or re-sprouting  after fire, those species  became adapted to surviving fires.  We think that fire is a important factor in generating the plant diversity of these regions.
The UCLA garden is in a most diverse part of the hotspot of diversity for California. And so our native plant garden shows off some of this diversity and we have plants from all five Mediterranean regions, which illustrate these kinds of similarities of plant forms in these five regions of the world
The botanic garden at UCLA can only show a limited number of plants because of space limitations, but I encourage everyone interested in, understanding more about Mediterranean  climates, just to enjoy a hike in the Santa Monica mountains. Santa Monica mountains are a perfect example of a highly diverse landscape with chaparral communities, some Woodland communities, where they can see plants like chamise, Manzanita, scrub Oaks mountain lilacs – a variety of species, lovely landscapes, and really wonderful areas of California.

4. California Floristic Province – Peter Raven

Victoria Sork: I’m very proud to introduce you to Peter Raven. Peter is an amazing botanist, and truly a champion for conservation. Time magazine called Peter: “Hero for the Planet.” He has produced hundreds of articles, and he’s received many, many prizes.  He started his career studying California native plants. And  Peter is one of the experts in understanding why California has so many species of plants. So I thought this was a commentary that you would enjoy listening to.

Peter Raven: California is one of the most extraordinary places in the world for its native plants,  and  plant diversity.  Special habitats, like where there are special kinds of rocks, led to the formation of many areas where there’s an unusual concentration of species. In the California flora region, there are nearly 4,000 species of plants, over half of which are found nowhere else.
Since many of its native plants are very rare, we need to conserve them, by leaving certain areas alone, or by putting the seeds of those plants into seed banks, keeping this wonderful flora  for the generations that are gonna come in the future.
I came to UCLA, as a graduate student in 1957. During the time I was there, with a faculty member, we got an interest in the flora  of the Santa Monica mountains and began to, prepare the first guidebook to all the plants in  the Santa Monica Mountains. We did that by consulting the press material that was in the herbarium, driving down the canyons and recording what we saw so we could give the ranges of the native species and chart, the introduced species.  It’s been revised since, but it was a whole lot of fun to get to know the plants there really well.
Of course I have certain favorite plants that I love seeing every year in California. Lupin is one favorite flower. And bush poppy is a bush that has yellow flowers. There’s a prickly poppy that’s in the desert, and in drier places. Matilija poppy is a big bush with big white flowers, yellow in the center, like fried eggs.
When you’re out hiking around in the country, it’s like you’re on a voyage, finding new things and enjoying and noticing nature.  When we want, we can learn how many different things there are there, and how they connect with one another, how they got there and what they evolved from. Knowledge is really the key to conservation and knowledge is the key really to a happy life. When people know and appreciate and look at the plants around them and the animals around them, the insects, the mammals, the birds… life is enriched in abundance that cannot be achieved in any other way.

5. Oaks: An Evolutionary Success Story – Victoria Sork

Victoria Sork: I’m Victoria Sork,  director of the botanical garden,  distinguished professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, as well as the Institute for the Environment and Sustainability.

I’ve always been interested in trees, but over time, I  became more and more fascinated with oaks. oaks have become part of our culture.  We’ve used oaks  for shipbuilding, fences, housing.  Many civilizations have used acorns for food. Many people love truffles, and those live off the roots of oaks. And wine barrels come from the wood of oaks. oaks in particular have been so successful—they diversified  and became the dominant species of each ecosystem where they occur.  We can find them in forests right on the edges of rivers, in savannas, woodland forests, in the chaparral, even deserts of California. They started out up in the arctic, and over the last 50 million years, more and more species evolved, and they spread into more ecosystems—primarily in Asia, Europe, and North America. They really are the dominant species of most ecosystems throughout North America.  If you take the biomass of all of the oak species in the northern hemisphere, they are the most abundant tree that we have. By sequencing the entire genome of one oak, the Valley oak, we learned they have hundreds of genes to help them resist diseases. And it may be one of the secrets to their success. In our garden, you’ll find a nice specimen of Valley oak growing near Jewell Terrace. Valley oaks are found throughout California. Sometimes when you go through a vineyard and you see these tall trees scattered throughout the vineyard, those are often Valley oaks. The interior parts of California along the foothills, you’ll see beautiful Valley oaks. The most common tree oak in Los Angeles is Coast live oak, which occurs along the coast from Baja, California, all the way up to Northern California. And we have Coast Live Oak growing along the stream. On the opposite side of the stream, we also have Cork oak.  Cork oak actually is from Portugal.  It’s called Cork oak because all of the corks for wine bottles in the world come from the trunk of the cork tree.  We have a few specimens of the Cork tree. You will also find some Scrub oaks,  as you walk along the path to the California native plants collection. Up on the Hill as  you walk towards Hilgard, we have a beautiful, Canyon live oak and it has a bench underneath it.  So if you want to enjoy the Canyon live oak, you can walk over there and visit it. We have a diversity of oaks scattered throughout the garden. And I hope you can enjoy some of them,  as you walk through and experience this beautiful place.

The UCLA Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden acknowledges the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (the Los Angeles basin and So. Channel Islands). As a promoter of nature at a California land grant institution, we pay our respects to the Honuukvetam (Ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (Elders) and ‘Eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present and emerging.

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