Santa Barbara Botanic Garden: Tested by Fire — And Time

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden: Tested by Fire — And Time

April 28, 2010
Photo by: Henry Fechtman

It will be a different sort of spring at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden this year. The iconic, photo-op scene just inside the gates will look much the same — a meadow of glistening California poppies and other wildflowers framed by oaks and with the sandstone peaks of the Santa Ynez Mountains as a backdrop. But throughout the rest of the garden you’ll notice the blackened stumps, singed foliage, denuded slopes and other unmistakable signs of the devastating Jesusita fire that blowtorched its way through the garden this past May — also destroying 80 homes and burning 8,733 acres in the area.

Make no mistake, the garden — still beautiful and one of America’s great treasures — is well worth a visit (it reopened soon after the fire). But now the visitor experience also includes a firsthand lesson in the ecology of fire — demonstrating how California’s flora is hardwired to respond to periodic burns. 

Educating the public about the peculiar nature of California’s plant life was among the founding principles of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. The garden was officially founded March 16, 1926, deep in a canyon several miles up from the lovingly maintained old Santa Barbara Mission. Ten years later, the visionary founders decided to limit the garden to California native plants. They recognized the state’s incredible diversity of nearly 6,000 native plants, and wanted to promote experimentation with natives and display their suitability for home gardens. Even in those water-profligate days, in a 1930 annual report, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which oversaw the garden, praised “California’s drought-resistant native plants, which conserve the state’s water supply.”

But despite its mission to celebrate, study and demonstrate the use of natives, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden didn’t shortchange design. Unlike most botanic gardens of the day, it was not planned as a display space for individual specimens. Regional plants were grouped by ecological communities: meadow, desert, chaparral and such. But design — and designers — ruled. Top names were called in, especially in the late 1920s, the ’30s and ’40s: Beatrix Farrand, from the East Coast, with her strong formal sensibility, and Lockwood de Forest Jr., who lived and worked in Santa Barbara, with his feeling for naturalism — their powerhouse collaboration establishing much of the garden’s direction and look. Individual plants were subordinate to spatial and aesthetic considerations. Making the most of the site, local stone was used and scenery framed, borrowing magnificent views of distant mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Instead of a zoo-like plant collection, the result is more like a walk into wild California as it used to be — even though it is entirely designed. 

Fire has struck the canyon before, particularly in 1964 when more than 1,500 sizeable trees in the garden burned. But in this part of Santa Barbara, as in much of the state of California where suburbs interface with wild space, burns have been suppressed, and the vegetation grew dense and tinder dry and flammable. When I visited the garden in midwinter earlier this year, it was hard to picture that day last May with flames higher than telephone poles, when 60 of the garden’s 78 acres were at least partly burned, along with almost all of the garden’s vehicles, tools and lath houses. When I was there, the winter sky was a clear blue, and monarch butterflies fluttered around gaudy yellow-flowered Encelia californica — a native shrub that had resprouted from burned stumps. Purple lupines bloomed along the trail where they hadn’t been seen for years, shaded out by dense brush; the garden’s head of horticulture, and vice-president of programs and collections Andrew Wyatt, said that the seed might have lain dormant for 20 or 30 years, waiting for fire to create favorable conditions for the seedlings to sprout and thrive.

Along the creekside canyon trail that winds through the garden, California bay trees had burned all the way to the ground but already were resprouting up to 8 feet tall. Live oaks showed brown foliage, but they too were sprouting fresh green new growth 18 inches long or more.

On a hillside on the Porter Trail, very few Ceanothus (California lilac) were to be seen. Most had burned to the ground and will not resprout. Instead, their modus operandi is to regenerate by seeds that germinate from high temperatures — fire is their friend. With the thick tangle of shrubs that once lined the trail now burned down, awesome views from the hilltop have opened. You feel like you can touch Santa Cruz Island some 20 miles offshore, and you see what the designers had in mind when they planned the garden to borrow views from nature.

The garden’s redwood section started as one of the garden’s horticultural experiments: Could the giants of the coastal fog belt grow 200 miles south of their range in a dry hot canyon? They could, and the cool, cathedrallike quality of the redwood grove became a visitor favorite. The redwoods demonstrated their famous resistance to fire. Although many were singed, only one, located in the garden’s main meadow, burned to the ground and now is sprouting dozens of new branches like a huge fern.

Throughout the garden, mostly what you see coming back from burned stumps and from seeds are plants that were originally native to the site: lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), redberry buckthorn (Rhamnus crocea), bay and others. Native western poison oak seems to grow twice as fast as everything else, and visitors should watch for it. Not coming back so easily are the thousands of native plants that had been collected elsewhere and planted in the garden. It will take years of propagating to replace them.

Dr. Edward Schneider, president and CEO of the botanic garden, recognizes other challenges as well. The fire interrupted the two-decade process of developing and putting into place a master plan — which has met with some local resistance over the updating of buildings and other changes. The Cultural Landscape Foundation considers the garden an “at-risk landscape” because of plans for its historic core. (Go here to learn more.)

As the garden’s planners and the whole area wrestle with how to design for future fire safety, the garden will indeed look different. But Dr. Schneider is focusing on the fire’s “unexpected blessings” — the views that have opened, and the chance to share with visitors new educational exhibits and demonstrations of defensible space landscaping. Education along with research and great design continue to be vital parts of the garden’s mission.