San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum: an introduction to a world of plants

Dallman, Peter and Scot Medbury
San Francisco   San Francisco Botanical Garden Society 2005

Now that Scot (Scot Medbury, formerly director of the Strybing Arboretum and now Director of the Brooklyn Botanicla Garden) has gone onto higher things in New York this slender book which he wrote with Dr Peter Dallman before he left can be a modest source of consolation. It resonates with his cheerful and friendly voice. Peter and Scot tell us how the Botanical Garden’s collections represent plants from all over the world. The cover photographs are by renowned flower photographer Saxon Holt, and Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, has supplied a brief comment. Every page has handsome colored photographs, most of which were taken by Peter Dallman.

The book is organized by the trails in the garden, moving from the entrances through three walks to the Collections Trail. There is also a history of the arboretum and the Golden Gate Park. It is a wade mecum, to be consulted as one follows the trails.

Consider the Rhododendron Garden. It was started in the 1940s under the supervision of John McLaren, superintendent supreme who reigned from 1887 to 1943. Rhododendrons have been part of our garden landscape for so long we tend to forget that more than three quarters of them come from China and the Himalayas with the rest found in the Eastern United States and a few other countries such as Malaysia.

There has never been a good explanation of why the same genera should be found thousands of miles apart in Asia and North America. Asa Gray, pre-eminent botanist at Harvard in the nineteenth century suggested that the continents had once been united and gradually separated over millions of years, each segment taking its plants with it. This was a wild supposition when he put it forward in 1859 but once the concept of the earth’s tectonic plates was accepted Gray’s explanation seems to be credible.

McLaren, who had been trained at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, was exceptionally fond of rhododendron. In a way he had been present at the creation and probably never lost his sense of wonder. These exotic shrubs had started to arrive in Britain in the mid 19th century, not long before he began his apprenticeship. He thought of them as natural woodland plants and designed the garden at Strybing in that style. He had to amend the sandy soil very thoroughly so that the acid-loving plants would thrive. The mild winters of Northern California permit them to grow and survive much better than they would in the in colder parts of the country.

Our botanical garden has representatives of the main groups, ‘Arborea’ and ‘Maddenii’. The species plants are glorious but the hand of the hybridizer has created even more splendid and vigorous forms. They crossed the tender Far Eastern ones with the hardier R. catawbiense from America’s Northeast.

Each section of the book gives you this sort of detail about such wonderful places as the “Southeast Asian Cloud Forest”, “Chile and South America” and many others. This is a book to treasure.

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