Outdoors: 6 hidden gems to explore at Berkeley’s UC Botanical Garden

If you’ve lived in the Bay Area your entire life, you may think there are no hidden gems left to discover. You know this place like the back of your hand, right? Think again!

Tucked away near the top of Berkeley’s Strawberry Canyon, the 34-acre UC Botanical Garden offers a surprise around nearly every bend — architectural marvels, ancient fossils and sweeping views. The garden reopened this summer for visits by reservation only, offering a chance to get outdoors and enjoy all the beauty these hillside acres afford.

Here are six hidden gems we found too good to keep secret any longer.

Julia Morgan Hall

Director Lewis Feldman shows off this Julia Morgan treasure near the Botanical Garden gates. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear this beautiful, historic hall, designed by famed architect Julia Morgan, was built on the garden grounds in 1925, when the garden moved to its present location in Strawberry Canyon. It’s among the first things you see when passing through the gates — but it only arrived here recently.

Built in 1911 in the center of campus, it was originally called Girton Hall, and it served as the meeting room for all senior women on campus. Maximum capacity: 80. The hall, which is known for its soaring cathedral ceiling, was moved in four pieces and carefully reassembled on the garden grounds in 2014.

In non-pandemic times, it’s a popular spot for weddings, parties, lectures and meetings. You can’t go inside right now, of course, but you can pause to admire the engineering and artistry of Morgan, Class of 1894.

The Japanese Pool

Children pause to peer into the Japanese Pool on a field trip to the UC Botanical Garden in early March. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Stroll up the path to reach the garden’s Japanese Pool, a popular spot especially for children looking for newts — the pool is a natural breeding area for these little amphibians.

The pool traces its roots to the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939-40. After the fair closed, the Japanese exhibit — which included stones, lanterns and other works — was donated to the Botanical Garden on behalf of the Japanese government, and settled into its current spot with assistance from the UC Japanese Alumni association. Kaneji Domoto, a prominent Bay Area landscape architect, oversaw the design of the exhibit on both Treasure Island and at the garden.

The dawn redwood

The ancient Dawn Redwood is a remarkable sight. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

The garden is divided into nine geographic regions, with more than 10,000 types of plants, including rare and endangered species — and this marvel. Visitors may have walked past this towering redwood in the Asian section with hardly a glance, but if they stopped to read the identifying marker, they might have realized they were passing beneath a living fossil.

The dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is the only living species of the genus Metasequoia, once thought to be extinct and known and studied only through fossil remains. Then in 1940, a revelation: Small stands of the trees were found growing in South and Central China.

The trees face many challenges growing in the wild and always seem on the verge of extinction, but many now grow in arboretums around the world. The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden was the first to receive one, which now thrives in the foggy reaches of the garden.

Garden of Old Roses

The Garden of Old Roses is an ethnobotanical collection of plants — and they’re more than just pretty. The roses were selectively cultivated to display a botanical timeline of rose cultivation through the development of modern hybrid tea roses.

It was planted at the top of a steep hill in the design of an English garden. Along with the roses, you’ll find hollyhocks, foxgloves, petunias and penstemons, common companion plants in a rose garden, which offer sweeps of color.

Trudging up the long path to the rose garden offers another reward, too: sweeping views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge on clear days. And thankfully, there are benches, so you can catch your breath, take in the sweet aroma and soak up the vistas.

The Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden

The Herb Garden at Berkeley’s UC Botanical Garden includes several kinds of herb gardens, notably, a Chinese Medicinal herb collection and a western herb collection. (Courtesy of Paul Licht) 

More than 100 herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine grow in this unique garden, which was installed in 1987 through a joint effort by the Botanical Garden, San Francisco’s American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and China’s Guangzhou University. The aim? To teach students what these herbs look like when they’re growing, and not already dried and packaged.

It’s the nation’s only garden of its type, where the herbs are arranged by their traditional Chinese medical function. Signs mark each group, from purging and promoting the flow of water to regulating Qi, pacifying the spirit, removing congestion and anti-cancer.

The “Pet Log”

A polished section of a petrified tree trunk awaits visitors to the UC Botanical Garden. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

The Garden’s newest and oldest addition is a petrified log affectionately called the Pet Log. You’ll find it near the Tropical House.

The log weighs 5,500 pounds and was donated to the botanical garden by the Oakland Museum of California, where it was housed for many decades. It cost the garden $1 a pound to move the thing.

The log originally came from the Petrified Forest in Northern Arizona, and is more than 200 million years old.

Two more, for later

When the COVID-19 pandemic is over and we’re free to move around, here are two additional hidden gems to visit.

Darwin’s orchid:This orchid, which blooms from late winter through early spring, lives in the still-closed Orchid, Fern and Carnivorous Plant House. Its name is a nod to naturalist Charles Darwin, who observed that with its unusually long flower spurs, this orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale) would have to be pollinated by a moth with an unusually long proboscis and tongue. At the time, there were no known moths with such a tongue, and some scoffed at Darwin’s theory. Four decades later, that exact type of moth (Xanthopan morganii) was spotted visiting the orchid flowers.

Mather Redwood Grove: This 5-acre redwood grove and its white stone amphitheater is perhaps the best kept secret of all. It’s located across the street from the garden’s main entrance and behind a locked gate. But when we’re free to go where we please, in what we hope isn’t the distant future, it’s definitely worth seeing. Garden director Lewis Feldman likes to point out that it’s just as spectacular as Muir Woods, but much easier to get to. Trails meander through the grove, which honors Steven T. Mather, an 1884 alum and the founding director of the National Park Service, and there are plenty of benches for sitting and contemplating this beautiful place.

If You Go

Planning a visit? The garden, at 200 Centennial Drive in Berkeley, is open by reservation only from noon to 5 p.m. daily, with mandatory masks and social distancing. Admission is $7-$15; free for kids 6 and younger. Make a reservation and purchase tickets at botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu.


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