UC Davis Magazine

In Our Own Backyard: A History of the UC Davis Arboretum


Gracing the banks of Putah Creek in the southern part of the central campus, the UC Davis Arboretum has provided respite, recreation and research venues for countless students, faculty, staff and visitors for more than 60 years. Here we take a look at the arboretum's history, its current programs and its plans for the 21st century.


7 a.m. An early-morning mist lies close to the water as a jogger makes a loop around Lake Spafford and heads over the bridge toward Mrak Hall. The mallards have moved from the water onto the grassy banks, searching greedily in the leaves for breakfast. Beneath a tree close to the water's edge an elderly man performs his daily t'ai chi routine so smoothly and quietly that the nearby egrets scarcely take note.

Welcome to the University of California, Davis, Arboretum--botanical garden, outdoor laboratory and classroom, museum and nature trail; site of picnics, weddings, garden tours and lectures; a place to jog, to walk, to sit quietly and remember how nice it is to be in the company of plants.

Located along the banks of the north fork of Putah Creek, the arboretum just celebrated its 60th year of providing a unique venue for research, teaching and outreach to the community. Each year more than 50 classes, from environmental toxicology and landscape architecture to anthropology and art, make use of its collections. As the largest assemblage of California native plants in the interior of California, the arboretum is known as the premier resource for horticultural information in the Central Valley. Arboretum staff are regularly consulted by nurseries, landscape planners and other professionals, and conduct in-service training for campus landscape staff and municipal and county employees. Through its educational outreach programs, arboretum staff and volunteers offer environmental education for elementary school children, guided tours, workshops and classes, field trips and publications. Its activities, gardens and natural setting attract roughly 250,000 visitors each year.

The idea of creating an arboretum at the Photo University Farm first surfaced in the 1920s in discussions that included such well-known campus figures as botany professor W.W. "Doc" Robbins. But it was Knowles Ryerson, the new University Farm director, who, in 1936, gave the idea life. Ryerson served on the advisory committee for the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and had an interest in California native and drought-tolerant plants. He envisioned a teaching and research garden that would also serve as a passive recreation site to keep students occupied and entertained.

"I had always been interested in plantings; and here was a chance to do something along the creek on campus," Ryerson recollected in his oral history, The World Is My Campus. "It was the one natural feature we had.... They had the first Picnic Day there [in 1909] when Mrs. [Carolee] Shields [wife of campus founder Peter J. Shields] brought her sandwiches and potato salad."

So on the first Cal Aggie Labor Day, Feb. 29, 1936, with a budget of $200 from the Campus Improvement Fund, John Stahl from the landscape gardening department organized the clearing of brush and debris from a 19-acre site along the creek bed.

The first plantings were of California natives in the area between Aggie Villa and the California Avenue bridge--ceanothus, toyon, redbud, oak, bay redwood and other conifers, many of them donated by the U.S. Forest Service's Civilian Conservation Corps nursery. Since there was no irrigation system, the plants were watered by students via bucket brigade. Over the next decade, more than 2,000 redwoods and other native and exotic trees and shrubs were added. (Later, in reference to those redwoods, botany professor T. Elliot Weier said, "If we'd known better, we probably wouldn't have put any in. We didn't know any better so we put them all in. . . . As soon as they had summer water they did very well.") Today, the Weier Redwood Grove, dedicated in 1969, is one of the largest collections of Sequoia sempervirens existing outside its native range.

In 1937, the Arboretum Committee was formed. Committee members at various times included, among others, Weier, Robbins, Ryerson and Stanley Freeborn, the campus's first provost. "In those days," Weier is quoted as saying, "things were more informal. The committee not only made decisions concerning the arboretum's future, they also planted, watered and weeded the gardens." In 1941, the campus budgeted $2,000 for the arboretum.

World War II brought the closure of the Davis campus to students. Although research projects continued--especially those directed toward increasing food production--the rest of the campus was turned over to the U.S. Army's Western Signal Corps. Now, instead of students gathering to study or relax, the arboretum was a setting for soldiers creeping through brush and under the old oak trees along Putah Creek. Explosives were tested in the arboretum's waterway.

Somehow, most of the redbud, redwoods and other young trees planted in 1936 survived the Army boots and jeep patrols. But the years immediately following the war saw the arboretum's funding reduced as the university community concentrated on recovering from the war's effects. The Arboretum Committee lapsed into inactivity, and no new plantings occurred. In 1948, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the north fork of Putah Creek at both ends, and the water, like the arboretum itself, was now stagnant and still.


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