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Golden Anniversary of Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Articles: Golden Anniversary of Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

A former newspaperman and college administrator, the author, in retirement, is active on behalf of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

The story goes that one day in 1926 a small group of influential Santa Barbarans were enjoying an outing at their favorite Mission Canyon picnic spot when they saw signs indicating that the area was about to be “developed” by a subdivider. Within days, Mrs. Anna Dorinda Blaksley Bliss purchased thirteen acres near the Mission Dam in the canyon, endowed it with a memorial trust fund honoring her father Henry Blaksley, and the internationally known Santa Barbara Botanic Garden was “born.” Records indicate that Dr. Frederic E. Clements of the Carnegie Institution of Washington had first advanced the idea of a botanical garden in Mission Canyon. The first Director was Dr. Elmer J. Bissell, who supervised the original installation.

Mission Dam, built in 1806 by Chumash Indians across Mission Creek, is now part of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Photograph by David Muench.
Mission Dam, built in 1806 by Chumash Indians across Mission Creek, is now part of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Photograph by David Muench.

Whether this account of its beginnings is apocryphal or not, the Garden is now celebrating its Golden Anniversary year in 65 acres, and attracts more than 200,000 visitors annually. It is noted as one of only two or three gardens devoted exclusively to the preservation and study of California’s native flora.

Originally the Garden was affiliated with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and was called the Blaksley Botanical Garden, but in 1939 it struck out on its own as an independent organization, and, with the approval of Mrs. Bliss’ family, the name was changed to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. In a community noted for its cultural attractions, the Garden has become one of the most popular public facilities in Southern California. School children, study groups, artists, ornithologists and architects as well as just plain interested visitors and tourists are attracted to its various sections and well-marked trails every month of the year.

Display, research and education are the three major objectives pursued by the active citizen-trustees and the professional staff of ten. Dr. Ralph Philbrick, Director of the Garden, commented, “We play an important role in encouraging measures for the conservation and preservation of native flora. We believe that our research and horticultural testing have influenced the use of natives for roadside, park and garden plantings throughout the state.”

Because the Garden is devoted exclusively to native California plants, native chaparral and oaks of the area have been preserved on several of the slopes, and fine specimens of alders, sycamores, cottonwoods and willows line the Canyon.

There are ten sections and numerous named trails at the Mission Canyon site­ — several made possible by gifts and subsequent acreage acquisitions during the Garden’s fifty-year history. More than a thousand different kinds of plants, most of them labelled, are under cultivation.

Mission Dam, an interesting historical landmark, lies within the Garden boundaries. Together with open stone aqueducts leading to the Santa Barbara Mission at the foot of the Canyon, the Dam was built by Chumash Indians in 1806–7 under the direction of Franciscan padres. Native sandstone and mortar made from ground-up sea shells were used, and then capped with adobe bricks.

Meadow section looking towards La Cumbre Peak of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The Blaksley Boulder is prominent. Photograph by Bob Werling.
Meadow section looking towards La Cumbre Peak of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The Blaksley Boulder is prominent. Photograph by Bob Werling.

The Plants

With the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains and La Cumbre Peak as a backdrop, the flat, meadow section is planted and cultivated for year-round display and is the most frequently visited of the ten sections. St. John’ s wort, Hypericum formosum var. scouleri is the ground cover, with borders of California poppy, coreopsis, clarkia, and penstemon. The administrative buildings are in this section, as well as an information kiosk near the main entrance. The west side of the meadow features the huge Blaksley Boulder, and the Seller and Bessie Bullard Brook, which is shaded by large Coast live oaks, Quercus agrifolia, the oldest in the Garden. Nearby there are viewpoints which look down into the Canyon and to the Dam. Displays on the eastern bank of the meadow include toyon, garrya, and California buckeye as well as bladder pod and St. Catherine’s lace.

The Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, and Washington fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, are seen in the desert section on the Canyon’s rim. Also featured are palo verde, sweet acacia, desert willow and many cactus species.

A chaparral section is located on the steep slope between the meadow and the Canyon floor, and includes manzanita, bush poppy, fremontia, buckwheat, salvia, and barberry. The Campbell Trail is in this section and ends with a rustic bridge across the creek.

Following each side of Mission Creek, the canyon section has much of its vegetation in its original condition. It includes white alder, bigleaf maple, western sycamore, black cottonwood, and California bay. Shrubs such as California holly, coffeeberry, creek dogwood, elderberry, and wild blackberry abound in the filtered shade. The Pritchett Trail winds through the chaparral of the west slope above the Canyon and includes a view of the northern Channel Islands.

One of the principal occupations of the Garden’s staff has been research on the flora of California’s off-shore islands, and the entire island section has been developed for that purpose. Island ironwoods, once widely distributed on the mainland, now occur in nature only on the islands. The Botanic Garden, however, has beautiful specimens in this section, as well as island bush poppy, Dendromecon rigida subsp. harfordii; island ceanothus, Ceanothus arboreus; and island buckwheat, Eriogonum arborescens. Island oak and island closed-cone pine are also represented.

A very small seasonal stream tributary to Mission Creek provides the setting for an arroyo section where there are numerous conifers — Douglas fir, lowland fir, Port Orford cedar, Monterey cypress, and several different pines. In season, there is a “dripping rock” surrounded by ferns, iris, waterleaf, monkey flower and alum root.

To the east of Mission Canyon Road in the forest section, the Porter Trail, developed in 1959, winds through a grove of Santa Cruz Island ironwoods and most of the California species of cypress. Digger, bishop, and Monterey pines are also seen here.

More than fifty different kinds of Ceanothus are displayed along the ridge of the ceanothus section, several of which have been developed in the Garden and are now in the commercial nursery trade. These California lilac plants are accompanied by other shrubs — redbud, fremontia, and manzanita.

At the northern end of the Garden are the woodland section and the redwood section. In the former, the trails lead through a naturalistic setting, and no intensive cultivation has been done. The acid soil under the redwoods has provided an ideal environment for California rose-bay, Rhododendron macrophyllum; western azalea, Rhododendron occidentale; huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum, and salal, Gaultheria shallon.


Some of the Garden’s greatest assets are the active volunteer groups among its 1,750 supporting members. A Garden Guild of more than seventy-five dedicated women work throughout the year at creating and producing gift items made with natural materials.

These are sold in the Garden’s gift shop and produce a substantial contribution to the operating budget. The Garden Growers maintain a lathhouse in which they grow and sell plants to benefit the garden. In addition to native plants, they are interested in making available unusual non-natives not normally found in the nurseries.

The Garden Guides, a volunteer docent group numbering more than twenty, participate in special training classes. Then they provide knowledgeable leadership for tours through the Garden for both children and adults. The Guides also staff the information booth.

An annual program of lectures, special events, tours, and courses is also supported by volunteer effort. This spring’s classes included Spring Wildflowers, Plant Propagation, and Plant Communities of the High Desert, as well as an Air Tour of the Northern Channel Islands. Lectures were held featuring Santa Barbara Gardens of the Past, Yesterday and Today in the Santa Barbara Back Country and Mangrove Ecosystems in Southeast Asia. Short tours for members went to Point Mugu State Park, the University of California, Los Angeles, Japanese Garden, De la Guerra Springs and the upper Santa Ynez River area. A similar calendar of classes and tours is scheduled each fall.

The Botanic Garden is an outdoor laboratory for public and private schools in the Santa Barbara area, and many scouting and recreation groups also bring classes for guided tours or special instruction. Individual artists, art classes, photographers and bird-watchers use the Garden for field trips. Horticultural research goes on constantly, with the 3,000-volume library and 50,000 specimen herbarium as the principal resources. A mutually beneficial academic exchange operates as a cooperative enterprise with the Biological Sciences Department of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Botanical experimentation is a continuing activity. Horticulturist Dara Emery and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden are credited with the notable development of Ceanothus ‘Far Horizons’, Lupinus ‘Canyon Sunset’ and Iris ‘Canyon Snow’.

Entrance and meeting place, information kiosk and bookstore. Photograph by Maria Ealand.
Entrance and meeting place, information kiosk and bookstore. Photograph by Maria Ealand.

Publication is an important element of the Garden’s activities. Some of the titles which are available in the Garden’s own book shop, as well as commercial book stores, are:

Trees of Santa Barbara by former Director Katherine Muller, Richard Broder and Will Beittel.

Biology of the California Islands, edited by Director Ralph Philbrick.

Wildflowers of the Santa Barbara Region by Katherine Muller and Campbell Grant.

A Guide to the Plants o f Figueroa Mountain by Jacqueline Broughton.

California Plants to Color — a coloring book for children by Jacqueline Broughton.

Plants of Santa Barbara Island by Ralph Philbrick.

A Sketchbook of Santa Barbara’s Native Wildflowers by Jacqueline Broughton.

The Book Shop also offers more than six hundred other titles on environmental subjects.

The Garden is a privately funded nonprofit institution. Its costs are met by dues from members, special gifts, and income from endowment funds, which are administered by a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees. During the fifty-year span there have been four Directors. After Dr. Bissell, Maunsell Van Rensselaer served for fourteen years. Dr. Katherine Muller then served for twenty-four years and Dr. Ralph Philbrick has been Director since 1974.

The Garden is open daily, free to the public, from 8 a.m. to sunset.

Dr. Philbrick observed, “We have passed the halfway mark toward our Centennial. With the continuing enthusiastic support from our community, we can look forward to the next fifty years with pride and confidence.”




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