In 1966, when Wayne Dollase came to UCLA as an assistant professor of geology, he bought a 48-page guide to all the plants on campus, The University Garden, which had been co-authored by renowned horticulturist Mildred Mathias. Once the guide went out of print, however, Dollase saw the need for an electronic database to track the constant changes among the 550 different plant species on campus (excluding those in the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden). He took on the challenge of creating that database — and 50 years later, the professor emeritus of earth, planetary and space sciences continues to update the data by walking the campus every two weeks, taking note of what’s there and what’s not. To check out his database, go to botgard.ucla.edu/campus-plants.
North Campus Student Center/Bunche Hall/Campbell Hall
Let’s begin with North Campus. There’s the towering Ficus benjamina (weeping fig) that grows at the southeast corner of the North Campus Student Center. It produces thousands of small figs, many of which drop to the ground in winter and form a crunchy groundcover around the tree’s roots. In the weeping fig’s native Asia, birds find the figs to be a big treat, Dollase says. But American birds — for whatever reason — just don’t see the appeal.
At Bunche Hall, on the north side, facing the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden and reflected in the glass is Pinus canariensis, or Canary Island pine, by far the most numerous of the types of trees planted on campus. Because of its lofty, columnar shape, Dollase says, the tree is often used to extend and soften the abrupt lawn or sidewalk-to-wall transitions around the tallest campus buildings.
Despite its name, Thevetia peruviana — also known as yellow oleander — is native to Mexico and Central America, not Peru. With its yellow-apricot flowers and green leaves that taper to a point at each end, this shrub grows in a thick hedge along the south side of Campbell Hall. Dollase reminds us that while this is an attractive shrub for hot, dry sites, like its oleander relative, it needs to be kept at arm’s length due to its toxicity. Look, but don’t eat!
Just outside the offices of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, you can find the Lagerstroemia x hybrid, or crape myrtle. This deciduous tree (meaning it sheds its leaves in the winter) blooms in the spring; in the fall, its leaves often change to a very vibrant color. “The prettiest trees on campus in the fall are the crape myrtles,” Dollase says. “If you were to go up to De Neve [Residential Plaza], there are crape myrtles that have the most magnificent red foliage.”
At the north entrance to Royce Hall is Arbutus unedo, or strawberry tree. This member of the Ericaceae family (heather, manzanita) boasts tiny, hanging, bell-like flowers. When its fruit (shown here at an early stage) ripens, it grows bright red and comes to resemble strawberries. And they are edible, Dollase says. “It’s just that they’re rather bland. You can eat them, but I’d rather eat a strawberry.”
One of the first trees planted on campus was this majestic Cedrus deodara, or deodar cedar, located on the northeast corner of Royce Hall. Originally from the Himalayan Mountains — where it is considered sacred — this evergreen, coniferous tree can grow to more than 100 feet tall, with level branches and a cone-shaped crown. The Class of 1929 gave UCLA several deodar cedars, which were planted around Royce Hall in 1930. As proof of this gift, check out the plaque posted on a stone bench on the east side of Royce Hall.
Anderson School Complex
One of the few plants on campus that bloom in winter is Plumeria rubra, or frangipani. Its beautiful red flowers provide bright spots of color along the south side of the Anderson School complex, and its extremely long, thin leaves are rather distinctive, Dollase says. “The leaves are sort of whirled around the ends of the branches. So farther down on the branches, there are no leaves.” Don’t expect the heady fragrance of the plumeria flowers that you find in your Hawaiian leis, however — these campus blossoms have disappointingly little scent.
You probably recognize Bougainvillea hybrid — it’s that viney plant that has taken over the entire fence in your backyard. These particular beauties are located at the southwest corner of Rolfe Hall. “What’s interesting about bougainvillea is that it’s spiny. If we look underneath the branches, we see thorns,” Dollase says. “These thorns are rather small at the branch ends, but as we go along the branch, they get bigger and bigger.” What’s up with that? Well, those thorns are actually modified branches, he explains, and they grow from what are called axillary buds. The bougainvillea has one other interesting point: “Here you would think the colorful things are the petals. They are not. They are called bracts, and they are modified leaves that have coloration to attract pollinators. But the flower itself is that tiny little white bloom in the middle of the bracts.”
Student Activities Center
At the left of the north entrance to the Student Activities Center is Magnolia x soulangeana, or saucer magnolia. As you may have guessed, the tree gets its name from its flower petals, which can grow as big as saucers. By December, the tree is usually in full bloom, but sometimes it blooms late. When the deciduous tree loses most of its leaves, it has many big, fuzzy buds, each one a future flower.
“This tree is an example of a cross between several different magnolias,” Dollase says. “It was done in France long ago by one of Napoleon’s retired officers. It’s become a tree that is widely, widely planted. If you walk along the Law Building on Young Drive, there’s a long line of these, and when they’re in bloom, they’re absolutely beautiful.”
This is just a tiny selection of the kinds of plants you’ll see if you consult Dollase’s database while walking the campus. For this abbreviated tour we didn’t stray very far south, but there are hundreds of gorgeous plants all over campus, including the grove of tall Mexican fan palms at the entrance to the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, or the rich array of succulents growing on the second-floor balcony of the John Wooden Center. There, you’ll find such treasures as Agave sisalana, or sisal (the material from which rope and twine are made) and Euphorbia tirucalli (known as Firesticks), a striking plant with tan to red pencil-like branching stems. And there is so much more!
If you’ve been on campus recently, you may have noticed that sprouting up in a number of areas — including around Murphy Hall and in several spots on the Hill — are new landscapes that are quite different from the more prevalent traditional stands of manicured bushes and hedges. Far better adapted to Southern California’s weather, these new plants are waterwise, or drought-tolerant, and need relatively little water.
Which, of course, is what we have here — very little water. In Los Angeles, the average annual rainfall is 14.93 inches. During the past four years, we’ve hovered at less than half that. To top it off, 2014 and 2015 were the hottest years on record. Your standard ornamental plant just can’t cut it here without oceans of water, piped hundreds of miles from Northern California and Colorado.
Brought about by a host of campus entities, the drought-resistant landscapes are part of UCLA’s comprehensive sustainability efforts to, for one thing, bring water use 20 percent below a 1999–2001 baseline by 2020. Results are measurable: For example, replacing 45,500 square feet of turf grass around Murphy Hall is saving more than 3 million gallons of water a year. Picture a football field with water rising nearly eight and a half feet high.
UCLA supports waterwise plants through such sustainable practices as water-efficient (drip) irrigation and weather-based irrigation controllers. And rather than sending green waste straight to landfills, campus grounds crews chip it and reuse it as mulch for soil health. They also use integrated pest management to control insects, diseases and weeds. Bioswales, or rain gardens, collect precipitation, allowing it to seep into the soil and nourish plants rather than run off onto hard surfaces and be lost to storm drains.
But water conservation isn’t the best thing about these sustainably landscaped areas. Taken together, the trees, shrubs, flowers and succulents make for tapestries of standout color and myriad textures and fragrances, attracting butterflies, birds and other creatures. “These are really demonstration gardens,” says Nurit Katz M.B.A., M.P.P. ’08, chief sustainability officer and executive officer in Facilities Management. “As a public university, we want the campus to be a living laboratory that can be modeled by others.” — Linda Estrin