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Marin IJ Articles

Arboretums are gardens of discovery and inspiration

  • Jane Scurich
  • In 1997, as a newly certified UC Marin Master Gardener, I volunteered at the Master Gardener information desk at that year’s county fair. One of the first questions, and one I will never forget was, “What tree should I plant in my front yard?” Whoa — where do we possibly start to answer this seemingly simple request?

    There were numerous obvious questions — Where do you live? (Marin County micro-climates are extremely diverse.) What is the purpose of the tree? Are you looking for a focal point outside your front window? Do you want to obscure a view of a roadway? Filter sound? Need shade? Would you like to grow fruit? Attract wild life? Enjoy beautiful blooms? Do you want an evergreen or deciduous species?

    So many choices; where to begin?

    A visit to an established local arboretum is an ideal way to explore many tree varieties that thrive in our area and see mature specimens. I am a visual learner, so seeing what a sapling will look like when it’s 45 feet tall and 25 feet wide is much more helpful than reading a plant tag that accompanies a 5-gallon nursery specimen.

    It’s also important to think in terms of seasons. Even in our temperate climate, trees exhibit seasonal change. A tree you love in April may not be your favorite one in November.

    As a young child, growing up in Memphis, my dad volunteered with the Memphis Men’s Garden Club to establish an arboretum. I remember those little trees — they were about my fifth- grade size. On a visit to Memphis for my 40th class reunion, I had an opportunity to wander through the towering canopies of those cute “little” trees. What a difference a few decades make!

    Arboretums speak to us about permanence. They offer an opportunity to see what a little sapling at the nursery will look like as an adult.

    Arboretums are created for visiting, to help us discover trees that grow well in our climate zone and to experience an amazing variety of trees we may not encounter in our neighborhood.

    We’re fortunate to have several outstanding arboretums that are part of larger botanical gardens in the Bay Area.

    The San Francisco Botanical Gardens has a global collection, but for me, none is more spectacular than the magnolias that bloom in late winter and early spring.

    In addition to the magnolias, towering redwoods, more than 50 varieties of maples, and even more varieties of pines are cultivated at the 55-acre garden in Golden Gate Park. If you are considering investing in a statement tree, you owe yourself an exploration of this garden.

    The Botanical Garden at UC Berkeley is filled with a renowned collection of manzanitas and California lilacs as well as many other trees that thrive in our Mediterranean climate.

    UC Davis features a Mediterranean arboretum. UC Santa Cruz Arboretum maintains collections of rare and threatened plants of unusual scientific interest.

    Markum Nature Park and Arboretum in Concord offers 2.4 miles of trails that will introduce you to 45 species of trees, many native to California.

    For those looking to bring a tropical tree indoors or add to their greenhouse, the Conservatory of Flowers houses a large collection of exotic palms as well as citrus, tropical fruits, coffee and cacao.

    I can plant a vegetable garden over a weekend and enjoy the fruits of my labor in 60, 90, 100 days. But trees? Trees are for the long term — think next generation, think permanence, think of an investment in the future. Passionate visionaries planted the seeds for us to experience the magnificence of decades old, mature trees. Take the time to explore our established local resources and make informed planting choices.

    Explore online, and plan a visit:

    • San Francisco Botanical Garden: www.sfbotanicalgarden.org

    • Berkeley Botanical: www.botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu

    • Markham Nature Park: www.markhamarboretum.org

    • UC Davis: www.arboretum.ucdavis.edu

    • UC Santa Cruz: www.arboretum.ucsc.edu

    • Conservatory of Flowers: www.conservatoryofflowers.org