UC Davis Magazine


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PhotoNOON. It's a warm spring day, and the paths of the arboretum are crowded with people glad to be out of their offices and classrooms for an hour. Men and women dressed in running gear pound past, talking as they run about some lab project or other, followed at a more leisurely (though still focused) pace by participants in the campus's lunchtime Stroll and Stretch walking program. The benches situated all along the arboretum's nearly four-mile loop are taken by brown-baggers, some lunching with friends, others reading or just enjoying the sun. Student couples sit or lie on the grass, pretending to study but really paying attention only to each other. The ducks, never not hungry, hang around the brown-baggers, hoping for handouts.

The arboretum's outlook began to brighten in the 1950s. In 1954, award-winning landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, whose other projects include Sea Ranch and Oakland's Lake Merritt, began preparing a new landscape plan that would integrate the arboretum into the campus. But there were no funds to implement his plan.

In 1956, under the directorship of Richard Harris, horticulturalist Don Sexton became the arboretum's first full-time staff member. Sexton developed a consistent planting plan that followed the Halprindesign, implemented a seed exchange program, led tours, placed signs and constructed gravel pathways. The budget provided $3,500 for one man and $1,200 for one horse.

In 1959, the Arboretum Committee reaffirmed the arboretum's goals: to preserve the one unique topographical feature of the campus--Putah Creek channel--and its natural vegetation, to research the value of Mediterranean-type plants for use in the Central Valley, to provide specimens not usually available for teaching and research, and to provide a passive recreation area. On the Aggie Leap Year Labor Day in 1960 and again in 1964, more brush and dead trees were cleared from new portions of the creek bed.

Throughout the '60s the arboretum's collections grew. Much of what is now in the arboretum came into being during that time--the Peter J. Shields Oak Grove (dedicated April 1962 to honor Shields' 100th birthday), the Eric Conn Acacia Grove, the Carolee Shields White Flower Garden (dedicated in 1965, though not planted until 1976), the gazebo and the Wyatt Snack Bar (both built in 1966). The creek bed was widened and dredged in 1968, creating Lake Spafford and the lagoon at the west end. The paths were paved with asphalt, and footbridges constructed. By now administered through the botany department, the arboretum got its first director, Rolf Y. Berg, professor of botany, in 1964.

Berg's directorship came at a time when the campus administration was looking for open space for student recreation facilities, and it was suggested that the arboretum move north and west so that the space it occupied could be used for other purposes. Berg launched a campaign to preserve the integrity of the existing plantings for research and education, with passive recreation as a fringe benefit; he also wanted to expand the arboretum west to the University Airport area. His efforts resulted in letters to the administration from, among others, UC Berkeley, UCLA, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and the California Academy of Sciences, all in support of preserving the arboretum. The proposed plan to move the arboretum was abandoned (though the idea of expansion was also dropped).

Photo Botany professor John M. Tucker was named acting director when Berg left in 1965; he was followed by another professor of botany, Grady L. Webster, who was named director in 1966. Webster used student workers to help stretch the $20,000 budget. By the end of May 1967, $5 remained in the budget to support propagation and field work. "The implications of this do not have to be belabored," Webster reported to the Arboretum Subcommittee.

One night in October 1969, fire broke out in the arboretum headquarters building, then located south of the main campus in the Armstrong Tract. Everything--pots, desks, plant and propagation records and the entire seed collection--was lost. Numerous research projects were destroyed along with all of the seeds intended for fall planting. Equally devastating was the loss of the entire photographic record of the development of the arboretum.

Despite its loss, the arboretum managed to move forward. The botany department offered space in its Orchard Park greenhouses, and the arboretum staff launched a vigorous effort to acquire new seed, much of which originally had been collected in remote locations--the South Pacific, Mexico and Central America. Seed exchange programs, significant research projects and tours continued. But funding continued to be problematic, and in March 1971, the ax fell.

Presented with a budget slashed by Gov. Ronald Reagan as a response to UC campus unrest during the Vietnam War, the administration was forced to find ways to save money. Thus it was that Director Webster, "with a sense of deep regret," had to inform his staff that, effective July 1, 1971, the administration would no longer fund the arboretum. Staff would be laid off, and arboretum maintenance would be taken over by Physical Plant. Although Webster vigorously opposed the decision, his appeal was rejected. The arboretum's future appeared bleak.

Letters of protest were once again received from other UC campuses, as well as from garden clubs, the California Association of Nurserymen, the California Native Plant Society, the campus's own Academic Staff Organization and students. And one group, in particular, reacted to the news of the arboretum's imminent demise with determination and resourcefulness.

Enter the Friends of the Davis Arboretum. Formed in 1960 by a group of local horticultural enthusiasts led by Knowles Ryerson, the "new" Friends, led by Mary Major, Art and Winifred Spurr, Lloyd Ingraham and others, quickly sent letters to potential supporters, saying simply, "Due to budget restrictions the future of the arboretum at UCD is seriously threatened. Can you join us to discuss ideas for continuing its support?"

Join they did. They gave money and they gave time. Organized by Nancy Crosby, the Friends volunteers gave tours, labeled plants, weeded, cultivated and pruned. One Saturday each month the general public was invited to participate in a general garden workday. Often 20 or more people would show up. Through their efforts, the Friends emerged as the salvation and sustenance of the arboretum.


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