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Three Botanical Adventures in the East Bay Hills By MARTA YAMAMOTO

Special to the Planet
Friday April 01, 2005

Warm spring days beckon us out of our homes like monarchs emerging from their cocoons. Time to brighten our views and feel the touch of the sun. Time to renew our dreams of travel to destinations far and away. 

Distant travel may be beyond our immediate reach but botanic travel is close at hand in three locations right outside our doors in the East Bay hills. Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, in Oakland, Regional Parks Botanic Garden, in Tilden Park, and the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley each offer a unique sense of place and a welcome outdoor adventure. Visit them to walk through a primordial north coast landscape, tour a living museum of California’s native plants and enjoy a trip around the world on footpaths leading you among the flora of Southern Africa, Asia and Central America. 

Devote a day to all three or escape on a quiet morning to spend just one blissful hour witnessing the renewable cycle of life.  

What you see at Huckleberry Preserve you won’t see anywhere else in the East Bay. The collection of California natives on 235 acres of ocean floor strata laid down 12 million years ago is a reminder of a cooler, moister climate, a landscape caught in time. 

Huckleberry Path, a 1.69-mile loop along a self-guided nature trail, traverses a wide range of landscapes as it meanders along the canyon. You’ll get a good workout on this leaf-littered footpath with its series of steep undulations down to a mature bay forest and back to the upper trail. 

The nature path brochure, available at the trailhead, draws your attention to unique vegetation in the densely wooded canyon and contrasts it with chaparral thickets on the rocky knolls, while providing lessons on ecological succession and competition for resources, especially water and light. Between coast huckleberry, ceonothus, chinquapin, madrone, and a wide variety of flowering shrubs, there is a year-round display of color in leaves, branches and blooms. 

My visit in early spring was timed perfectly with emerging blossoms and tender new growth: tiny leaves forming from velvety buds on the bare branches of western leatherwood, dangling clusters of pink and white flowers on flowering current, delicate green uncurling fronds of sword and wood fern, tiny white milkmaids and violet Douglas iris.  

Walking through the steep canyon terrain I saw unusual growth in the dense forest of California bay and oaks. Down-slope branches arched almost horizontally across the canyon while those on the up-slope stretched vertically toward the light. I felt far away—on Oregon’s beautiful coast or in a Tolkien dream—not just a few miles from home.  

When does a botanic garden feel like a wooded retreat? When you walk through California at Regional Parks Botanic Garden. Here it’s difficult to tell where nature ends and the garden begins. From natural pathways of gravel and stone to hand painted illustrated signs identifying each section, from secret rustic benches to towering trees, this is truly a natural outdoor experience.  

Established in 1940 for the growth and preservation of California’s native plants, the park can boast of displaying the entire botanical range of all 160,000 square miles of the state. Native specimens from seacoast bluffs, interior valleys, alpine mountains and sun-scorched deserts, all contained in just ten acres.  

Learn the names of your favorites from color-coded labels or follow pathways, listening to bird life and the sound of Strawberry Creek running its course through the garden. Keep a mental list of botanic wonders and observe their cycle of life next season. You really need to visit at least four times a year in order to enjoy the monthly succession of blooms. 

My recent visit left these lasting memories: the tiny flowers of ceonothus (wild lilac) bushes in clusters of blue, pink, and white; a pink flowering current framed against the patchy white trunk of a western sycamore; small groves of slender quaking aspen brightly coated with orange lichen, sentinels amid a field of bright green; the smooth, satiny bark of the brittleleaf manzanita, it’s sculptured branches as lovely as the finest piece of art. Toward the top of the garden I came upon a towering grove of redwoods, below them the ground carpeted with soft tri-leafed sorrel abloom in pale pink. On this foggy morning, faint shafts of light slanted down through the branches onto a weathered bench where I sat. Within this natural cathedral, I took a quiet moment to reflect on the soothing beauty of nature and the wisdom of subtle maintenance amid a natural landscape.  

Broaden your floral horizons at the UC Botanical Garden where specimens from across the globe thrive in a Mediterranean climate. Photographers, artists, gardeners, lovers of nature or those seeking beautiful surroundings will want to return time and again.  

Established in 1890, the oldest campus botanical garden in the United States’ 34 acres contains over 13,000 species attractively landscaped in nine geographical regions and several special collections. Amble along the main route in one hour, take two to explore the web of footpaths leading you through each area or spend an afternoon with a picnic and a book on the lawn or at one of the many sheltered benches throughout the park. 

The Garden brochures direct you to specific sections and tours. A seasonal tour pamphlet describes garden highlights on a 45-minute self-guided circuit. The California Natives brochure connects the plants in this diverse section with the indigenous people of 250 years ago. Another pamphlet leads you to the Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden providing instruction in traditional Chinese medicine as it points out over one hundred herbs.  

My recent ramble through the garden was a flower lovers dream. My eyes were immediately drawn to the Southern Africa section, a palette of soft pastels in orange, yellow, blue and lavender. The entire hillside glowed with specimens of oxalis, cape cowslip and homeria. This area is heavily featured in the “water wise” garden tour, the plants well adapted to our Bay Area climate. To my right resided the guardians of the garden in the New World Desert, where some of the oldest specimens are found. Stately cacti, yucca and agave, formidably adorned with needles, thorns and early blooms, were highlighted by the sun.  

More flower profusion met me on the path to the Japanese pool, a scene of beauty with its massive stones, snow lantern, pond lilies, camellias and dogwoods. Rhododendron, magnolia and tree peonies, festooned with multi-sized blooms in Easter-egg colors, decorated the path approaching the central lawn and the Tropical House. Inside, the warm humidity soaked into my pores while the fronds of palms and banana trees dripped overhead. Don’t pass up the Fern and Carnivorous Plant House where you can dream about ridding the world of those pesky flies with a giant forest of Venus Fly traps and Pitcher Plants. 

The largest section of the garden represents California’s native plants, organized by plant community. Here you will see old favorites from the Regional Botanic as well as many others, such as those stunted trees in the Pigmy Forest and the aquatics in the vernal pool. One of my favorites is the giant coreopsis, its whimsical feathery stalks with large yellow flowers right out of a Dr.Seuss book. 

Complete your visit across from the main garden at the redwood grove, always quiet and mystical. Often forgotten, here you will find the giants of California’s coast, ramrod straight, filtering the light and creating an environment unique unto itself. Consider their years of growth and hope that it’s merely a fraction of their time in this living museum.  

Travel complete, return home inspired and infused with plans for a personal garden, an adventure afar or another visit among the botanic landscapes of the East Bay hills.  

Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve: Take Grizzly Peak Blvd. and cross Fish Ranch Road. Continue on Grizzly Peak 0.24-miles to Skyline Blvd. Turn left onto Skyline and drive 0.8 miles to the park entrance on the left, just past Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve. Chemical toilet and one picnic table at parking lot. Dogs allowed off leash. 


Regional Parks Botanic Garden: Located in Tilden Park on Wildcat Canyon Road, near its intersection with South Park Drive. Open daily 8:30-5 p.m., free. Classes and lectures offered through the Visitor Center. 



UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley: 200 Centennial Dr., midway between the UC Berkeley Memorial Stadium and Lawrence hall of Science. Open from 9-5 p.m. Adults $3, children $1. 643 2755. http://botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu.