As changing climates bring about new realities, those working at UC Santa Cruz’s Arboretum and Botanic Garden are invested in preparing for the future. 

Amidst ongoing climate collapse, the Arboretum is using the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program (AMRP) and the Native Plant Program (NPP) to engage more with conservation and Indigenous land stewardship practices.

The groups collaborate through work on the California Conservation Garden, only a part of the Arboretum’s collection of over 300 plant families on 135 acres of land.

Photo by Henry Thomas.

The California Conservation Garden at the UCSC Arboretum is a collection of rare and endangered local plants planted in groupings that you would find in nature.

“The Arboretum does a very good job of educating us,” said fourth-year intern Brigitte Becko. “[It’s] showing us that there are better ways for us individually to think about climate change and to think about the planet.”

The AMRP engages with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band to cultivate and maintain culturally important plants by reincorporating dormant cultural knowledge from the tribe to better address contemporary environmental problems.

“The Amah Mutsun have been very involved with the Arboretum and helping with plants,” Becko said. “When [the gardens] have invasive plants, or when [staff] don’t really know what to do, sometimes they will go to the Amah Mutsun for advice. Because obviously, they are experts in that land and in those plants.”

Rick Flores, Director of Horticulture and Steward of the AMRP, has worked with the tribe since 2009, learning how to manage the land with traditional practices such as controlled burns.

Flores explained that the Amah Mutsun were stewarding these lands for thousands of years before colonization, with one of their biggest practices being low-intensity fire. This practice is an act of cultural sustainability that reduces the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires.

“Traditional ecological knowledge can show us that there can be respectful, sustainable interactions between human beings and the environment,” Flores said. 

The unique partnership the Arboretum has with the Amah Mutsun encourages respect for the original inhabitants of this land while actively practicing responsible stewardship. 

Beyond the AMRP, the Native Plant Program (NPP) engages with climate change efforts through the growing of conservation gardens with endangered local plants, seed banking for research projects, and experimenting with seeds’ DNA. 

Seed banking refers to keeping seeds at sub-zero temperatures so they remain viable until they can be germinated again. This is done to preserve plant species.

Photo by Henry Thomas.

Not only does the NPP house seed banks, but the program also collects diminishing native seeds, cleans them, and puts them into active curation at the Arboretum. 

In line with its conservation efforts, the Arboretum houses three climate domes that replicate distinct climate atmospheres. Each dome consists of plants that can survive in different environmental outcomes of climate change over the coming decades.

Each dome consists of a scenario where the climate changes under one of the following conditions: 

  • The climate zone gets hotter and drier, allowing plants from southern California and northern Mexico to thrive.
  • The climate zone gets colder and wetter, which is more suitable for plants from the Pacific Northwest.
  • The rainfall stays the same, but falls more during the summertime, a climate zone in which plants from central California and the Great Plains will thrive.

“One of our duties as a public botanic garden arboretum is to grow plants that are fit for the coming climates,” said Martin Quigley Jr., Executive Director of the Arboretum.

By practicing sustainable cultivation practices rooted in Indigenous culture, the Arboretum highlights the inextricable connection between native conservation practices and the fight against climate change.

While the Arboretum’s main attractions are the beautiful plants and gardens, their mission goes beyond staff, interns, and volunteers, serving as a community model for sustainable gardening and future conservation.

“These aren’t just really cool plants to have in your personal landscape,” Quigley said. “These are plants that will survive what’s coming to us.”