Happy Wanderer: UC Botanical Garden offers worldly view of plants


As a seasoned traveler, I’ve ended up in some strange foreign lands. Iceland in June, Lapland in January … South Dakota in the dead of winter. But this happened in my own backyard, so to speak.

There I was, standing face to face with a cobra. Alert and extended, it seemed poised to strike.

“It’s a magnificent specimen,” said my guide as he beckoned me closer. “Just look at the hood.”

Indeed, it wasn’t a snake, but the most curious of lilies — this relative of the corpse flower protruding from the lush, green environs of Asia. Or at least it looked like Asia.

In reality, it was one of nine major regions featured in the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley. The UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley is 125 years old and features some 13,000 different plants from around the world. On a tour with director Paul Licht, we explored the 34 acres in scenic Strawberry Canyon.

There were curious Living Rocks in South Africa; pebble-like plants that retreat below ground in the punishing summer heat. I saw Josephine Lilies, with football-sized bulbs atop massive stalks, surrounded by a riot of colorful marigolds and cowslips. And I tried to do the math on some rare primitive cycads — plants known to date back to the dinosaurs.

In Asia, an early spring rain moistened the camellias and hydrangeas along Strawberry Creek. Under the cover of clouds, the Japanese pool and waterfall punctuated the sounds of nature. Cool and moist, this was my favorite region of the garden and a perfect place for meditation. But my senses wouldn’t allow me to rest.

There were still other regions to explore: the highlands of South America with its impressive wild fuchsias and gigantic spiny puya (the puya, I learned, would have hundreds of blooms by late spring); the vernal ponds and pygmy forests of California; the rocky, lavender-covered slopes above the Mediterranean Sea and the arid environs of Mexico (where the mother of the birth control pill — the Mexican yam — grows.).

The beauty of this garden is that it’s always blooming. From the islands of the South Pacific to the southwestern California deserts, the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley is a wonderful way to see the world without ever leaving the East Bay.

FYI Take a virtual tour with UC Botanical Garden director Paul Licht by clicking on: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2009/04/botgarden/



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