Posted on | February 23, 2010 | 7 Comments
“After 18 years as head of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Edward Schneider is leaving for a job at the University of Minnesota, where he will become a fully tenured professor and take over as director of the arboretum,” reports the Santa Barbara Independent. Schneider leaves California’s most important native garden without half of its volunteers and all of its status. For background on his directorship, and that of his board led by former Arizona governor turned pastry chef Fife Symington III, click here and here.
A personal theory as to why Schneider and his board were so disastrous for the garden can be summed up in the difference between two terms: “arboretum” and “botanic garden.” Arboretums are collections, originally of trees, and often occupy the estates of some dead robber baron. They represent the plunder and show ethos of a bygone era in which exoticism was the prize and native flora a weedy background.
As an imperfect rule, their boards attract society figures who invariably embark on capital construction projects. (“Wouldn’t it be lovely to put a terrace on that ridge?”) Their calendars are peppered by events that have nothing to do with the environment other than that they take place out of doors.
To this writer’s eyes, Schneider mistook Santa Barbara for an arboretum. Under his directorship, it demoted then fired first class horticulturist Carol Bornstein and embarked on the horribly controversial “Vital Mission Plan.” At its silliest, it was reduced to hosting “Doggie Bagel Brunches.”
By contrast, botanic gardens tend to be scholastic institutions with an emphasis on research and teaching. They are inquisitive rather than showy. Their storehouses of botanical knowledge have never been more necessary as we gird for climate change and must as a matter of urgency change out our urban plant repertoire to respect diminishing water supplies and curb green house gas emissions of lawn grooming machinery.
For a local example of the difference between an arboretum and botanic garden, compare the Arboretum of Los Angeles County to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Do not be fooled by the whimsical tacking on of “botanic garden” to the arboretum’s name some years back. Their comparative programs tell the story. That is not to call the Los Angeles Arboretum disastrous. It is a very pleasant place for a picnic among the peacocks. However, the day would be welcome when its board can hang onto a director long enough to become the kind of educational magnet needed to steer California out of its garden-led water crisis. In the meantime, it is the most excellent place to paint watercolors or to see where Tarzan was filmed.
Yes, there are exceptions to the rule — the Arnold Arboretum, Asa Gray and all that. But here in Southern California, I stand by my theory. The day that the volunteers at LA’s Arboretum greet visitors with the enthusiasm and knowledge of Rancho’s, I’ll take it back. How I would love to take it back.