The Botanical Gardens – an oasis in the midst of suburbia.

Botanical Gardens volunteers Michael and Susan Gregory. / photo by Leah Heagy

Botanical Gardens volunteers Michael and Susan Gregory. / photo by Leah Heagy

by Dustin Smith
photography by Leah Heagy

Tucked behind the Claremont School of Theology, there is a piece of California history that has been growing for many years: the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens. Much different from other gardens, this garden consists of a diverse display of California native plants that are expert survivors of the California sun. Not only does the garden offer breathtaking views, it also offers education about California native plants.

The garden is quiet and calming, which enables visitors to hear the chatter of birds in the trees and the scurrying of squirrels running through the bush. This environment quickly allows one to forget that a Los Angeles suburb surrounds the gardens.

“Now is a good time to visit the gardens,” says Michael Gregory, a volunteer at the gardens. “I like to go there with my wife. We go there and walk quite often. Also, a lot of photographers and painters go there in the spring to capture the colors in the springtime blooms.” During his time as an elementary school teacher, he brought his students to enjoy the beauty of the garden.

What is different about these plants at the gardens is that they are native California plants, which require much less water and are used less frequently as houseplants. The plants can be purchased at the gardens store, and are promoted at the garden’s annual fall and spring sales.

“The sale in fall is huge,” says Gregory, who began volunteering at the garden three years ago. After taking an eight-week orientation class to become a nature interpreter, he began volunteering as a tour guide for primary school children.

At the fall sale, many commercial buyers and landscapers make large purchases, since the winter season is a popular time to plant for flowers to bloom in spring. The spring sale is about as a third as successful, since many people do not plant during the upcoming summer season. Many people worry about the longevity of their plants, not knowing that many California native plants can take the heat of the summer sun and require less water than most plants.

“We waste so much water, and it is a growing concern,” says Robert Neher, professor of biology at the University of La Verne. Neher, concerned about the environment and the conservation of water, has taken an extra step to protect the environment. He created his own California native garden at his house. He has replaced his front yard with California native plants that require much less water to keep growing.

Coast iris / photo by Leah Heagy

Coast iris / photo by Leah Heagy

“I plant things I don’t have to water, which saves water,” says Neher.

The strong push for water conservation has given the garden a promotional boost, since the public has recently become more interested in conserving water. According to Gregory, more people are calling and visiting the garden in search of more information about drought-tolerant plants.

Brooke Gray, a senior biology major at the University of La Verne, had originally heard of the gardens at an Earth Day fair at ULV.

“I wanted to know more about it, but I didn’t know where it was,” says Gray. “I was excited when Neher said we were going to the gardens as part of our environmental lab.”

“The gardens are a microcosm of what California was and what it should be,” says Gray. “Californians plant too many plants that require too much water. It also serves as a testament to the fact that all lands, no matter how barren, will produce life that is attractive and appealing.”

The gardens are making a push for awareness, with more advertising and through articles in local newspapers. Also, the gardens offer information on when to plant different species of plants. At the gardens, visitors can buy plants that are pleasing to look at, such as bush poppies and lupine plants that display a bright blue color.

For more information about the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens, visit Admission is free to the public. However, donations are welcome. Hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The gardens are located at 1500 North College Ave., Claremont, Calif., 91711-3157, (909) 625-8767.