‘A beautiful place’: City, campus communities reflect on past year at UC Botanical Garden

photo of a flower up close
David McAllister /Staff
After a four-month closure, the UC Botanical Garden reopened to the public in July 2020. A year later, members of the UC Berkeley community and local city residents reflect on their experiences in the garden.

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UC Berkeley Professor of the Graduate School in plant and microbial biology John Taylor frequented the UC Botanical Garden with his wife during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Taylor, the garden was one of the few places they could visit that was open at the time.

“It’s a beautiful place; if you knew nothing about plants, it’s still a beautiful place,” Taylor said. “As an undergraduate, I think I went there a couple of times, but I blew it. I should have gone there more.”

Although Taylor, who has worked on campus for more than 40 years and sits on the garden’s faculty advisory committee, regretted not visiting the garden more often during his undergraduate years, he encouraged students to take advantage of the “amazing resource.”

The Botanical Garden temporarily closed its doors in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The garden fully reopened July 2020, resuming in-person services, including tours and summer camps, while continuing its online programs.

While the garden serves as a space for community members to explore, campus faculty and researchers have also utilized it to examine and teach about nature.

Taylor recalled teaching about the biology of fungi with professor emeritus Tom Bruns in fall 2016. Their course offered several field trips, one of which included a lichen BioBlitz at the Botanical Garden, where the professors and students spent the day identifying different species of lichens in the garden.

The reopening of the garden means classes can once again visit and observe the wildlife in the area, according to Lewis Feldman, executive director of the garden and a campus plant biology professor.

For researchers, the temporary shutdown restricted access to many facilities and plant materials, halting some projects. As the garden reopened, Feldman noted that he has seen more students and faculty members come in and conduct research.

Campus doctoral student Nina Maryn uses the Botanical Garden to collect samples of different plant species as part of her research on plant photoprotection. While Maryn was still able to enter and retrieve clippings with the help of a lab technician during the garden’s public closure, she mostly paused her research during that time.

Maryn had instead used the garden’s plant database to plan future experiments while working on her doctorate. Since the garden’s reopening, she has continued her work and found that the break “didn’t inhibit (her) research too much.”

For campus associate professor of integrative biology Cindy Looy, the garden and its conifer trees are an integral part of her research. According to Looy, she and her colleagues would examine conifers and their pollen cones for malformations.

“(The garden) is a fabulous resource,” Looy said in an email. “It is a library of living things with a stunning diversity of representatives of many plant families from all over the world.”

Educators and researchers are not the only ones drawn to the garden, with community members also admiring its biodiversity.

Berkeley resident Madeleine Dreyfus recalled spending parts of her childhood at the Botanical Garden and returning as an adult during the pandemic.

“It was really once I had my son that I started going back more to expose him and also to bring my husband,” Dreyfus said. We get to look at plants that are native to my husband’s home that my son has not gotten to see and that’s exciting for him.”

Campus rising junior Arina Caliman is an employee at the Botanical Garden. In her free time, she enjoys taking walks through the garden, as entry is free for students. One of Caliman’s favorite memories was spending her break at the Japanese pool, which was full of newts that come to the pond every year to mate, she said.

Like the many others who engaged in new hobbies during the pandemic, city resident Cara Kreit took up photography and participated in “iPhoneography with Yoni Mayeri,” a virtual program hosted by the garden, in November 2020. Frequenting the garden throughout the past year, Kriet uses her photography skills to capture memories of her children.

“We were there when the ash seeds were falling from the trees, when the magnolia petals were floating down the creeks, and to see the newts hatching and then growing up,” Kreit said. “They got to see all of that and experience it rather than being cut off from nature. They were part of it.”

Kriet expressed how grateful she is to experience how the garden changed in between each visit and to be able to do so with her children.

Dreyfus echoed the sentiment, adding that she and her family enjoyed looking for clusters of newt eggs and witnessing the life cycles of the wildlife around them.

“The best memories are how the gardens touch people in ways that are very different,” Feldman said. “It gives them a little fun and contentment in their lives.”

Annie Lin is the diversity, equity and inclusion committee chair. Contact her at [email protected].