Standing in the Aroma Garden of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, I inhale the pleasant scents of mint and honey. “Stand here for a second,” urges Stephen McCabe, director of education at the Arboretum. Following his suggestion, I stand downwind of an Escallonia viscosa, a lush, leafy plant that exudes a welcoming maple syrup-like aroma. “Sometimes I can smell this from 20 feet away,” McCabe says.
Established in 1964 as a research and education facility, the Arboretum boasts not only the Aroma Garden, but also the world’s largest collections of South African and Australian plants outside of their native countries, an unsurpassed assortment of conifers, the most diverse array of eucalyptus existing in a single, easily accessible area and native flora from such disparate regions as New Zealand, Chile and California. Along with being pleasing to the senses, these plant collections function as demonstration gardens. “People can come here and see how the plants grow,” says McCabe. “They can go to the native garden or the Australian garden and see how big something will be or what it will look like with other plants out in the garden.” As we walk along a dirt path, McCabe stops to point out a small black-and-white gopher snake on the ground directly in front of us. Other wildlife at the Arboretum includes bobcats and—even on a late afternoon such as this one—hummingbirds. He claims that in the springtime, the Arboretum is the best place in the world to see Allen’s hummingbirds, a species of colorful hummingbirds that can be found in California’s coastal regions. Each year, the organization hosts Hummingbird Day, attracting 500 to 1,000 people and bringing tourist dollars into the county. The Arboretum hopes to raise enough money to continue this tradition.
These days, however, money is in short supply. McCabe, who has worked for the Arboretum for 24 and a half years, was laid off in September as a result of UCSC budget cuts, which have also taken their toll on various academic departments and other much-loved university offerings, such as Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Since being laid off, McCabe has been rehired as a part-timer, but many Arboretum staffers haven’t been so lucky: several of the establishment’s key players, including Executive Director Dan Harder and Development Director Tad Sterling, are now absent from the organization’s roster. All remaining staff members have taken voluntary or mandatory reductions in pay. Between the staff members who were laid off, those who weren’t rehired after reaching the end of their one-year appointments and the retirement of Ron Arruda, curator of the South African garden, the Arboretum’s staff has dropped from 16 to nine.
“We’re very disappointed that our friends were laid off, and we realize that it’s going to be very difficult,” says McCabe. “On the other hand, it’s about the same number of staff we had several years ago. It’s going to be a tough year or two as we make this transition—there’s going to be a lot of work for staff and volunteers—but we’re hoping the community will rally around, give us donations and volunteer.”
He stresses that in spite of recent downsizing, there’s no danger of the Arboretum closing. The facility has a permanent endowment, which, despite the fact that the faculty is only allowed to use 4 percent of the funds each year for staff expenses, is a guarantee of a certain amount of money every year. The quality of the Arboretum’s plant collections, however, will depend on the amount of money its staff is able to raise over the next number of months. The Arboretum, which normally raises about $170,000 a year, is shooting for $300,000 between now and June 30 in order to ensure that it keeps the remaining staff members.
Locals can help out by visiting the Arboretum and paying the entrance fee, becoming members, suggesting to friends that they send donations and/or writing local state legislators such as Bill Monning and Joe Simitian and asking them if they know of any sources of funding that could help the Arboretum. The facility is also always on the lookout for volunteers to help pull weeds, staff the gift shop and library, lead children’s tours or help out at events such as plant sales and the dry flower and succulent sale. McCabe says yet another way to help is by shopping at the gift shop, which is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. “A gift from the Arboretum is really a gift to the Arboretum also,” he says.
In addition to hosting such classes as Plant Ecology and leading tours for introductory Biology classes, the Arboretum holds children’s tours and evening lectures and tours for the general public. Conservation is a big area of focus: with many of the facility’s plants falling into the rare and endangered category, the Arboretum’s staff tries to educate the public about the value of plants around the world and how to conserve locally as well as globally.
Another way the Arboretum’s staff helps educate the public is by providing gardening advice. For example, during the recent oak moth infestation that left local oak trees exfoliated, the institution’s faculty reassured people that they didn’t have to cut down their trees. “As we’ve seen [since], almost every one of the trees recovered from that,” McCabe says.
The Arboretum also contributes to the university’s research mission, both through its own research and by supporting UCSC researchers and researchers outside of the campus. “I just sent out research material to a fellow in Louisiana,” McCabe says. “He said if he hadn’t been able to get it from the Arboretum, he’d have had to take a trip to New Caledonia to get that material.”
McCabe also mentions that the Arboretum is currently helping researchers from Australia who are concerned about the tree disease Sudden Oak Death traveling to their country. The director explains that these researchers don’t want to do the testing in Australia, so a researcher comes to UCSC, collects plants and tries to infect them with Poison Oak Death to find out which plants in Australia would be susceptible. In this manner, researchers learn which plants should not be shipped to Australia in the event of an outbreak.
Events such as student art shows, quilt shows and spring and fall plant sales have endeared the Arboretum to the public. These sales are a big attraction for members, who come from as far away as Redding and San Diego to purchase natives and exotics that aren’t available anywhere else in the United States. “When I drop the rope, there’s this mad rush of people out to buy plants,” McCabe says with a laugh. “Sometimes we’ll sell $20,000 worth of plants in the first two hours.”
The Arboretum’s unique selling points have inspired fierce devotion among many, as evidenced by the fact that the Arboretum’s gift shop is staffed completely by volunteers. “We really couldn’t have gotten the gardens where they are today without all the wonderful volunteers we have,” McCabe says, adding that some of these supporters have been volunteering for the arboretum since 1976. Although volunteers have logged only 700 hours of work a month, the Arboretum staff thinks this is underestimating by a long shot.
“People really love the Arboretum,” says McCabe. “The volunteers who have been volunteering here for more than 20 years—sometimes 20 hours a week—they come out here, get on their hands and knees and pull weeds or whatever it is they do. They feel like it’s a family or a community here.”
Visit the UCSC Arboretum at 1156 High St., Santa CRUX; 427-2998; arboretum.ucsc.edu.
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