by Tracy N. Long, Ph.D.
Over the last two years, more people have discovered what many already knew, the healing power of experiencing nature in beautiful outdoor spaces. We were encouraged to go outside, breath fresh air, and get some exercise during the pandemic. We heard that enjoying the natural world was good for our physical and psychological health. This was not news for some of us who are lucky enough to spend most of our time outdoors.
As the administrative director of the Ventura Botanical Gardens, I am keenly aware of how beneficial a visit to a beautiful garden can be in times like these. Since early 2020, we have seen a record number of visitors to our gardens as people sought out places for safe and healthy recreation. Locals and out-of-towners alike found just such a place in our botanical gardens, a collection of Mediterranean climate plants on the coast of Southern California. These lucky visitors enjoyed the beauty of nature with expansive mountain and ocean views while getting healthy exercise and learning about the natural world.
Botanical gardens have been with us for hundreds of years. They have complex histories, but their enduring presence throughout the world has provided botanists and other scientists with the longest-running studies and documentation of plant life. Many of them provide sanctuary for species that no longer exist in their natural habitat.
Closely tied to the environment where they reside, these gardens have long been popular tourist destinations, but the modern botanical garden has a much larger purpose. Today, botanical gardens are curated collections of plant communities maintained primarily for conservation, research, and education. Many of them collaborate to preserve plant diversity and to share resources, specimens, and research findings.
The Ventura Botanical Gardens are still very young and are being developed in a time of climate change and severe drought. The southern coast of California lies in one of the five Mediterranean climate zones of the world. The gardens’ founders envisioned a collection of plants from all five zones that provide research opportunities focusing on sustainable cultivation and water conservation.
As of 2021, we are caring for over 30,000 plants representing approximately 3,000 species from California, Chile, South Africa, Australia, and the Mediterranean basin. Although we are just beginning to build this world class public garden, we are already very serious about our conservation and research mission.
Conservation is the first mission of any botanical garden. Preserving species and biodiversity is fundamental to garden activities. In Ventura, we are working to preserve this biodiversity by caring for multiple species that are seriously endangered in their natural habit. We have species in each of our gardens that are considered at risk.
Our California pine grove includes several rare trees, like the Island Pine which grows naturally only on the Channel Islands off the Ventura coast. Along with a consortium of other botanical gardens, we care for a collection of Tecate Cypress, which are known to have only about 20 trees in the wild.
Our South African garden is home to several rare and unusual Hoodia plants, whose unique appearance is very popular with visitors. Wine Palms and rare species of Puya are favorites in our Chilean garden. In addition, we have ongoing programs to plant multiple varieties of the species in our collections and to preserve and bank seeds from multiple specimens.
Not only is it important to preserve native species, but plants that are naturally adapted to our local environment use water in a way that is sustainable, provide natural food and shelter for indigenous wildlife, and can survive the normal cycles of wind, insect infestations, and wildfire. It also turns out that plants adapted to this part of the west coast are especially good at capturing carbon from our air.
The nature of our location in a biologically rich landscape subject to extreme weather events even without the impact of climate change, lends itself to important research projects related to biological sustainability. The wise use of water is key to the long-term survival of all plants and animals, as well as our communities, and for this reason, water projects are foremost in our work. We are experimenting with the use of recycled water and the extraction of water from fog. We continue to build on the water management methods of our predecessors on this land. We are demonstrating for our community that sustainable water practices can work for all of us.
Each year, Earth Day presents an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our place in the natural system. Botanical gardens can be an especially rich environment for such reflection. They sit at the intersection of history, culture, and nature and connect us to both the past and future of our planet. As humans pursue new ways of relating to the land, botanical gardens have a lot to offer us beyond just the general health and wellbeing that comes from a beautiful stroll through nature. With their long history of land use and biological data collection, botanical gardens are well positioned to conduct the research needed today to address issues of climate change, natural resource exploitation, loss of habitat, and threats to biodiversity.
Tracy Long, Ph.D.
Tracy Long, Ph.D., PMP has been a director of the Ventura Botanical Gardens since 2011. She is responsible for operational management and special projects, including the gardens’ extensive research agenda. Dr. Long graduated from Fielding’s Human and Organizational Systems program in 2014. She is currently a fellow with the Institute for Social Innovation.