There is no better way to see the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden at UCLA than on the heels of Mildred E. Mathias as she gracefully follows the paths and trails, celebrating the diversity of plants that Southern California can host.
"When I taught, I used the whole campus for teaching," she explains. She was instrumental--working with the former chancellor, Dr. Franklin D. Murphy--in the development of the entire UCLA campus into one of the great botanical gardens of the world. A 48-page illustrated tour book, "The University Garden," is available to guide visitors.
But the best place to teach is the Botanical Garden, covering eight acres at the southeast corner of the campus. Because it includes a surprisingly deep canyon, with its distinctly cooler air, it offers a variety of climates. This is quickly demonstrated by Prof. Mathias as she moves from the cycads, probably progeny of extinct seed ferns, past a planting grown from material collected by Mathias and other members of the faculty in the highlands of tropical Central America, around a lush new bed of Malesian rhododendron from Malaysia and the islands of Southeast Asia that one day may become common in local gardens, and up the far slope to the California natives.
There is a brief diversion to follow Thomas R. Howell, professor of biology, binoculars around his neck, to a towering aloe from South Africa where a dove has cleverly built a nest just out of human reach. Howell specializes in ornithology, and has counted 56 species of birds in the garden. How many eggs in the dove nest? He politely conceals any contempt for the ignorance of the questioner: "They always lay two."
Towering beyond the aloe, a metasequoia, or dawn redwood, catches the sunlight. Mathias laughs as she recalls the security problems created when the seeds of this extraordinary tree came from China in 1947. Western botanists had thought it extinct. As the first seedlings grew, they became prey to nurserymen anxious for material so that they could propagate the new discovery themselves. But the trees survived the depredation.
Mathias is professor emeritus now--a status that seems to have accelerated rather than slowed her activities. She continues to play an active role on campus, to lead field trips to Costa Rica and the Amazon, and to serve as chairman of the UC University-Wide Natural Reserve System Faculty Advisory Committee that oversees the 26 reserves of precious land around the state that are unique research and teaching facilities shared by all of the UC campuses.
As the tour ends, she seems as excited as if it had been her first. The garden, lath house and greenhouse contain 4,000 species in 225 families of plants. She shakes her head in disbelief, and with a sense of wonder acknowledges the obvious: "We can grow such a range of plants."