Bounded by the Pacific to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the east, California is home to over 6,500 native plants, many of which only exist here, that serve as the backbone to our state’s diverse and increasingly fragile ecosystems.
“If those species are lost in California, they are lost to the planet,” says Steve Windhager, the executive director of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
For Windhager, the 78-acre Garden, with its over 1,000 species of native plants heralding from southern Oregon all the way to the tip of Baja including the southern-most redwood grove, is much “more than a pretty place.” It is the home base for a three-pronged conservation effort to “understand, protect, and restore” California’s rich flora.
To do this, the Garden’s growing team of researchers, conservationists, and PhD-level botanists work throughout the state to actively document the diversity of plants across the California Floristic Province. To date, their scientific repository contains over 190,000 preserved plant and lichen collections dating as far back as 1860.
They are also protecting the future through widespread seed banking. “It’s an insurance policy for native plants,” Windhager says. “We put the seeds into suspended animation, to be defrosted for research or in a time of catastrophe.”
And all the while, the Garden is working with large landholders, think the Department of Defense and the United States Forest Service, to better manage their lands, restore native species, and bring overall health to California’s rich but increasingly fragile ecosystems.
Then, of course there is the Garden, a beautiful and beloved community asset set in Santa Barbara’s Mission Canyon, with sweeping views to both the Santa Ynez Mountains and out to the Channel Islands. Nearly 80,000 people visit each year to take in the seasonal splendor of quintessentially Californian nature scenes; a meadow lush with wildflowers in the Spring, a rushing stream and its riparian ecosystem springing to life with winter rains. The Garden is home to a rich tradition of public education, hosting numerous classes and lectures for adults each year, as well as one of the longest lasting school visiting programs, started in the 1950s, where Windhager says, youth “experience the importance of native plants as the cornerstone of all life on our planet.”
And the Garden is also the seat of serious scholarship. In 2019, its staff and affiliated researchers published a book, nine peer-reviewed articles, and six technical reports all while DNA coding plants, lichens, arthropods, mosses, and fungi growing on the Channel Islands.
“The Garden itself is the gateway for most people,” Windhager says. “For some, visiting Mission Canyon and walking through the redwoods is enough. But others, they get hooked and they want to go deeper and learn more. These are our future conservationists.”
And with the near endless diversity of California’s flora, there is always more to learn and discover.