UCLA’s Mathias Garden a plant lover’s paradise

26-carbonIn 1993, I was exceptionally fortunate to make the acquaintance of Mildred Mathias. Mathias was a world-renowned UCLA botanist who was distinguished not only for her achievements in horticulture and Costa Rican rain forest exploration, but for her personal style, class, grace, enthusiasm, leadership, compassion and sense of humor as well. When I met Mathias, she was already in her late 80s but had a youthfulness seldom encountered in people half her age.

Horticulture is one of those pursuits that keeps you young because you are always learning something new. There are more than 300,000 plant species and geobotanists locate and label many new species each year. Thanks to advances in plant breeding, especially tissue culture cloning, combined with the power of the Internet, people all over the world can learn about and acquire new or unusual plants with alacrity, as soon as these plants are discovered, wherever they might be.

The Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden, located on the UCLA campus in Westwood, is an appropriate tribute to the lady for whom it was named. Mathias freely gave of her time to anyone who wanted to learn from her vast knowledge and experience. So, too, does the garden that bears her name; seven days a week, during most daylight hours, anyone can walk in, free of charge, and spend a pleasant respite, whether for study or meditation, in the Mathias Garden. At the garden, you can leisurely walk among a botanical collection, spread over a sloping 8 acres, of more than 5,000 tropical, subtropical and Mediterranean species, several of which are found nowhere else in North America.

I visited the garden on a Sunday morning and was able to find free two-hour street parking on Hilgard Avenue, just north of Le Conte Avenue. There are several entrances to the garden, but I always enter through the gate just a short distance from the corner of Hilgard and Le Conte avenues.

The Mathias Garden includes four elements that can make a significant contribution to plant health. First, the terrain of much of the garden is sloping. Cold air, like water, runs downhill, and so the garden, even on freezing nights, is typically frost free. The presence of mature trees also keeps the garden warm since heat reaching the ground during the day is trapped by overhead foliage and kept within the garden at night. The soil itself appears to be a sandy loam, the best kind of soil for plants, since the good drainage it affords minimizes standing water and fungus disease.

Two cultural practices also contribute to plant health: absence of sprinkler irrigation and a consistent layer of mulch all around. The presence of hose bibs with hoses attached indicates a preference for hand watering in the garden and a ubiquitous layer of leaves is an open advertisement for mulching. I do not know to what extent supplemental fertilization is employed in the garden but I do know that constant mulch can minimize if not eliminate the need for fertilization altogether. Ruth Stout, the legendary backyard vegetable grower, mulched year round and never fertilized, watered sparingly, and never had to worry about garden diseases, pests or weeds. I did not notice a single weed in the Mathias Garden, a testament to the effects of a consistent mulching regime.

Several ground covers at the Mathias Garden are worth mentioning. In particular, I would like to draw attention to autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’). I had never seen a fern with pink fronds before but there are several healthy clumps of it here. It’s a nice touch on an overcast, midwinter’s day. I have no idea if the clumps put out pink fronds all year long or just in fall and winter, but I would certainly like to plant it and find out.

Palm grass (Setaria palmifolia) is another unusual ground cover. When you first lay eyes on it, you will think it’s just a clump of palm tree seedlings that someone forgot to pull. Yet, this is actually a ground cover that spreads. Although white bacopa (Sutera cordata ‘Giant Snowflake’) is a relatively familiar ground cover, I had never seen it grow with such carefree abundance. Here, it is luxuriating on a slope with nothing but half of the morning’s sun to give it light.

Several exotic shrubs encountered in the Mathias Garden also should be mentioned. Pink dombeya (Dombeya calantha) is blooming, along with Natal flame bush (Alberta magna), Mexican fuchsia sage (Salvia iodantha) and carbon (Cordia decandra). Car-BON (accent on the second syllable) gets its name from the fact that, in its native Chile, its dense wood is used as a coal substitute to melt the copper ore for which that country is famous. It is extremely drought tolerant.

Other plants of note include tramontana Ephedra tweediana), which looks like a green haystack, an extremely rare (for this part of the world) Vireya rhododendron, and a daisy tree (Montanoa guatemalensis). Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense ‘Sizzling Pink’) is a more commonly encountered shrub, at least in the nursery, due to its newly opened leaves, which are magenta colored, and its complementary pink flowers. Unfortunately, it resists adaptation to average garden conditions and is generally short-lived. Here, it thrives on half-day sun, good soil and, like the rest of the plants in this garden, no more water than it absolutely needs.

Be aware that many of the plants in the Mathias Garden are frost-sensitive, so make sure to place them in the warmest part of your garden, preferably under trees or next to a heat absorbing, and thus heat radiating, wall.

Tip of the week

Hand watering, as opposed to sprinkler irrigation, invariably lengthens the life of plants since water is applied on an as-needed basis. Excess water can lead to disease and insect pest problems.

It has been said that the difference between a landscape and a garden is that the former is sprinkler irrigated whereas the latter is watered by hand. A layer of mulch 2 to 4 inches deep will lengthen intervals between waterings so that if you do choose to water by hand, at least where woody plants and perennials are concerned, you should never have to do so more than twice a week, even in the hottest weather. Make sure mulch is kept away from trunks, stems and monocot leaves that grow up from the ground and are in contact with the soil surface.

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