Art and Research at the UCI Arboretum

On Oct. 8, the UC Irvine Arboretum hosted its annual Fall Perennial sale. Customers were seen early on trickling from the sale with bags and carts filled with exotic flowers.
‘It was pretty good,’ said Autumn C. Maruniak, a third-year molecular biology and biochemistry double major. ‘There was a large selection and pretty good prices.’
The Fall Perennial sale has gained popularity since it began. ‘It started as a very small event,’ said Laura Lyons, nursery manager of the Arboretum and a UCI alumna. ‘We
have quite a few flower species that people are interested in obtaining, so, you know, we started having this small plant sale in October.’
The Arboretum garden featured stalls with exotic flowers, as well as artists from Orange County Fine Arts.
‘It’s fantastic,’ said artist Laura Rice Robinson. ‘We love it. Many of our artists feature flowers that are in here.’
Lyons had contacted OCFA several years ago so the two associations could unite for their mutual benefit. ‘We have an alliance,’ said artist Marie Taggart. ‘[Laura] wondered about the group and she said, ‘You should do a show here.’ Once a year we’ve done that now, for three or four years.’
The artists’ work embodies the most basic purpose of the Arboretum: preserving what some consider invaluable beauty.
‘It’s important to bring people to this place,’ volunteer Sheldon Lisker said. ‘The money that comes from whatever profit there is once the plants are sold is to support the Arboretum.’
The Arboretum has three central purposes: education, preservation and research. On the grounds are a variety of exotic plants, including a particularly striking South African tree adorned with a rainbow of colors and rough spikes lining its bark.
Lyons hopes that by seeing plants such as this one, visitors will understand the fervor of those affiliated with the Arboretum for preservation. The beginnings of the Arboretum are closely tied to those of the university itself.
‘Our roots, if you will, go all the way back to the founding of the campus,’ Lyons said. ‘This section of the campus actually has an interesting history. The North Campus was the construction headquarters for UCI while the main campus was being built.’
The Arboretum was founded by Harold Koopowitz, whom Lyons described as ‘very inspiring.’
Lyons, who had Koopowitz as a professor at UCI, said that he inspired her career decision.
‘I wanted to do something different. … I wanted to be involved in the fight to preserve and protect endangered species,’ Lyons said.
Under Koopowitz, the Arboretum slowly accrued a vast plant specimen library (herbarium), along with a diverse and exotic array of plant species. Then, as now, ecologists and evolutionary biologists from the university came to the Arboretum in order to conduct research.
‘One thing we do is provide a research resource for other faculty,’ Lyons said. ‘We have an area set aside at the bottom corner of the Arboretum where professors who need open air plots but want maybe a little more controlled environment … will come over here and do their research.’
‘There are a number of reasons we have [exotic plants] here,’ Lyons said. ‘One of them is as a last-ditch [effort] if they disappear completely from the wild, which, of course we hope they do not. But they will be protected here at the garden and we do have some species that are gone from the wild.’
The Arboretum’s herbarium contains about 35,000 specimens of plant and lichen species. As with any herbarium, the strength of the specimen library at the UCI Arboretum is its backbone of botanical knowledge, containing firsthand specimens from which researchers can conduct studies
Curator Mark Elvin is heavily involved in the constant specimen gathering that goes on in the Arboretum. On his last trip to the San Jacinto Mountains, Elvin and his team of 60 collectors from several institutions collected over 4,000 specimens of rare and endangered plant species.When the Dolzura fire later struck the area, much of the plantlife that Elvin had studied was burned away, leaving the research expedition’s specimens as testament to species of plant life that may now be extinct.
‘We want to find out what’s there before it disappears forever,’ Elvin said. The Arboretum’s furious specimen gathering is for more than just research and preservation, however.
With budget crises looming across California, those affiliated with the Arboretum hope to garner more of the university’s funding. ‘I don’t think there’s anyone at the university that wants to see us go away,’ Lyons said. ‘Its justthere’s a lot of tough priorities to be made right now.’
Despite funding issues, the Arboretum has strong public support and has grown steadily over the past five years.
‘We’re working really hard to make sure we’re highly visible and utilized,’ Elvin said. And as far as student opportunities, the Arboretum has many to offer.
‘There’s always something interesting going on here,’ Lyons said. ‘There’s always something new.’