History of this Garden

The Garden was started in 1929, shortly after the University began classes in Westwood, along an arroyo on the east side of the campus and originally extending to “The Bridge.” Native willows grew along the creek bed, and the dry hills supported coastal sage scrub, a natural plant community of southern California. Mr. George C. Groenewegen, the first garden manager, obtained plant materials largely by donations from the United States Department of Agriculture Plant Introduction Garden at Torrey Pines, the California Botanical Garden in Mandeville Canyon, Coolidge Rare Plant Gardens in Pasadena, the Huntington Botanical Gardens, and other botanical sources. By 1947, our Botanical Garden contained about 1500 species and varieties of plants, which expanded to 3500 under the next superintendent, Donald P. Woolley. Dr. Mildred Mathias served as Director from 1956 to 1974. During the first 30 years, collections were of special interest because they included many species of Eucalyptus and Ficus (figs) before most became widely planted throughout the Los Angeles region.

img_0927As the Botanical Garden became an experimental site for useful subtropical trees in the southern California landscape, the UCLA campus also flourished as an arboretum under the inspired direction of Ralph D. Cornell, campus consulting landscape architect. With the blessing of Franklin D. Murphy (Chancellor, 1960-68), the park-like atmosphere of UCLA developed into “The University Garden,” and Dr. Mathias helped establish landscape tours for campus visitors.

The UCLA Botanical Garden of the 1950s included special sections of eucalyptus and other Australian plants, gymnosperms, palms, succulents, aquatics, and camellias. The original native vegetation had been removed, but was replaced by a horticultural display of California perennials. A lathhouse for teaching and research was completed in the northwestern corner of the garden in 1952. Franklin Murphy supported a project to build the recycling stream and ponds. Then with the construction of the Botany Building, a sunny area was set aside for a permanent experimental garden, where plants were grown for exciting cytological studies by the botany faculty. Since the early 1960s, efforts have been made to grow plants from the tropics and subtropics, especially those with magnificent flowers, e.g., the Bignoniaceae. The Garden has not suffered a freeze since winter 1948-49.

img_1138In 1979, the facility was named the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden, to honor Dr. Mathias for her numerous contributions to horticulture. By then, the collection had become forest-like. Dr. Arthur C. Gibson was hired as Director in 1980, and began a program to admit more sunlight, hence providing opportunities for many sun-loving groups of plants to grow. Periodically, areas of the Garden were renovated to establish special collections, including Malesian rhododendrons, the lily alliance, bromeliads, cycads, ferns, mediterranean-type climate shrubs (e.g., chaparral), and native plants of the Hawaiian Islands. Other exciting special collections are planned, and will be established in the future as funding becomes available.

The Nest, an outdoor classroom with semicircular bench seating, was constructed by the Garden staff and dedicated in1996 to the memory of Hazel (Lisa) Kath McMurran, a UCLA alumna. Later that year a massive effort was undertaken to build new paths on the western side of The Garden. The gently sloped new paths and entrances provide access to The Nest and special collections to all visitors, including those with physical disabilities.