Winds down 70 trees at California Botanic Garden

As the Santa Ana winds swept through southern California on Jan. 21, they toppled trees and cut off flow across much of Claremont, but Lucinda McDade, executive director of the California Botanic Garden, was primarily concerned about frozen seeds — embryos for the Thousands of rare plants in the state’s largest botanical garden’s seed bank dedicated to native plants.

She heard the winds howling that night and worried that the power outage would thaw the seeds, so she was up around dawn trying to restore backup power to the garden. She knew that the main gate would be useless because it is electrically powered.

What she didn’t anticipate was that 70+ trees and a blizzard of fallen branches, leaves and debris would render the rest of the garden impassable.

“The bizarre thing is that Claremont is usually quite sheltered from the wind. People will call and say, “It’s blowing 60 miles an hour in Fontana!” but when I look out my window, my oak tree waves like royals, slow and gentle,” said McDade.

But around 9 p.m. on January 21, she could hear the wind blowing things around on her patio, and it almost blew her door off its hinges as she went outside to check. The electricity went out and she planned to go to the garden early the next morning – a Saturday – to make sure the backup generator was working.

A partially fallen oak tree surrounded by stones

The lush evergreen canopy of this rare Island Live Oak likely caused it to be partially blown over during the January 21st storm, which severed its main root and required removal.

(Ming Posa)

It wasn’t, but restoring power to the freezer was a relatively quick and easy fix, she said. Clearing the huge fallen trees, mounds of palm fronds, and ankle-deep piles of debris was another matter.

The garden has been closed since the storm, and McDade said it must remain closed until trees blocking paths or threatening to fall have been removed.

Luckily, two of the garden’s most famous trees withstood the winds – the Majestic Oak, the oldest oak tree on the site, and the tall Boojum tree in the back reaches of the garden.

But many other trees were either completely uprooted or partially blown down severely enough to severe their main roots and necessitate their removal, she said, adding that one of the saddest losses was that of a rare living island oak, which normally only grows in the Channel Islands and Parts of Santa Barbara County.

The garden has a catalog of every tree on its 86 acres, but it can’t freeze the acorn seeds so they can be replanted, McDade said. “They turn to pulp when they come out of the freezer,” she said, leaving the garden’s gardeners to visit native stands of the damaged oak trees to gather more acorns for replanting.

Garden staff, who normally have desk jobs, were out with rakes and shovels last week, clearing the sidewalks, she said. “It looked like it had snowed 6 inches of leaves, branches and sticks all the way.”

Scattered fallen branches covering the ground

Debris from the January 21 Santa Ana storm covered paths at the California Botanic Garden with at least 6 inches of fallen leaves and branches.

(Lucinda McDade)

And then there was the small mountain of palm fronds that had to be removed in front of the administration office entrance. The wind knocked out the entire skirt of brown fronds of a California fan palm tree next to the building, blew out a third-story window, destroyed a canopy, and blocked the main door.

“It took at least four truckloads to move them all,” said Amanda Behnke, grants director of the California Botanic Garden.

McDade said she hopes to be able to reopen at least the front 35 acres of the gardens in the next few weeks after the trees are removed, “but right now it’s looking like a war zone, with heavy equipment moving around and trees everywhere on the ground. ”

Volunteers will likely be needed next winter when the garden begins replanting, but the damaged trees and plants must first be cataloged and removed. Don’t plant in the garden in spring or summer because the heat can damage tender seedlings, so replanting probably won’t begin until late fall or winter, McDade explained.

In the meantime, making the garden safe enough for visitors is a top priority. Garden staff could only do so much to help with the cleanup, Behnke said. “We have to hire specialist arborists to safely remove these trees – we can’t just have volunteers running around with chainsaws – and unfortunately insurance doesn’t cover the removal of fallen trees.”

Closed glass doors in front of a pile of fallen palm fronds.

Fierce Santa Ana winds blew the entire skirt of dead fronds from a towering California fan palm, ripping open a canopy and blocking the entrance to the California Botanic Garden’s offices.

(Lucinda McDade)

The cleanup is expected to cost at least $100,000, and “at this point we have a huge deficit — at least $75,000 — to get it paid for,” Behnke said.

People who want to help should consider making a monetary donation to the garden, McDade said, and then plan to visit it frequently after it reopens to replenish its coffers.

Another way to help? Become a member. Annual membership starts at $50 for individuals and $85 for families and provides unlimited entry to the California Botanic Garden and cross-entry to 300 other botanical gardens in North America, including 35 in California.

This is a time when native plants are beginning to bloom, so McDade is keen to open the gates. “I know that the garden is part of the mental wellness plan for so many people who visit it every day,” she said. “I got so many messages during the pandemic [when the garden was closed] of people saying, ‘I’ll never take the garden for granted again.’

“But the garden is still beautiful. There are large areas that look like nothing happened… The interaction of the wind with the trees is an inconsistent thing. It’s a shame, but we’ll be back.” Winds down 70 trees at California Botanic Garden

Russell Falcon

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