When the Santa Ana winds stormed through Southern California on Jan. 21, they toppled trees and knocked out power in much of Claremont, but Lucinda McDade, executive director of California Botanic Garden, was mostly worried about frozen seeds — embryos for the thousands of rare plants in the seed bank of the state’s largest botanic garden dedicated to native plants.
She heard the wind howling that night and was concerned that the outage would cause the seeds to thaw. She woke up early the next morning trying to restore backup power at the garden. She knew the main gate would be useless because it’s power-operated.
What she didn’t expect is that 70-plus trees and a blizzard of fallen branches, leaves and debris would make the rest of the garden impassable.
“The bizarre thing is that Claremont is usually pretty protected from the winds. People will call and say ‘It’s blowing 60 mph in Fontana!’ but when I look out my window, my oak tree is waving like the royals do, slow and gentle,” McDade said.
At 9 p.m. on January 21, she heard the wind blowing on her patio. She almost had to get out of her house to check it out. The power went out and she made a plan to go to the garden early the next morning — a Saturday — to make sure the backup generator was working.
It wasn’t, but restoring power to the freezer was a relatively quick and easy fix, she said. It was a challenge to clean up the massive fallen trees, mountainous palm fronds, and ankle-deep piles full of debris.
McDade advised that the garden must be closed after the wind storm and that it must remain closed until all trees blocking trails or threatening fall are removed.
Happily, two of the garden’s most famous trees withstood the winds — the Majestic Oak, the oldest oak on the grounds, and the tall Boojum tree in the back reaches of the garden.
Many other trees were also uprooted or partially blown over by strong winds, and they had to be removed. She added that the rare island live oak, which is a tree that grows only in Santa Barbara County and the Channel Islands, was one of the most tragic losses.
The garden has a catalog of every tree in its 86 acres, but it can’t freeze the acorn seeds that allow them to be replanted, McDade said. “They turn to mush when they come out of the freezer,” she said, so the garden’s horticulturists will have to visit native stands of the damaged oaks to gather more acorns for replanting.
According to her, garden staff usually working at desks were clearing the paths with rakes or shovels last Wednesday. “It looked like it snowed 6 inches of leaves, branches and sticks on all the trails.”
There was also the small mountain made of palm fronds at the entrance to administrative office. The wind tore out the entire skirt made of brown fronds from a California native fan tree, which was located near the building.
“It took at least four truck loads to haul them all away,” said Amanda Behnke, California Botanic Garden’s director of advancement.
McDade said she hopes 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 looks like a war zone, with heavy equipment running around and trees all over the ground.”
Next winter, volunteers will likely be required. However, damaged trees and plants must first be cataloged. The garden doesn’t do planting in the spring or summer because the heat can damage tender seedlings, so replanting likely won’t start before late fall or the winter, McDade explained.
In the meantime, it is important to keep the garden safe for visitors. Behnke explained that the garden staff could do only so much to assist with the cleanup. “We have to hire specialized arborists to safely remove these trees — we can’t just have volunteers running around with chain saws — and unfortunately insurance doesn’t cover removing trees that have fallen down.”
The cleanup is expected to cost at least $100,000, and “at this point we have a huge deficit — at least $75,000 — to getting it paid,” Behnke said.
McDade advised that anyone who wants to make a donation to the garden to do so. Then, plan to visit often once it reopens to replenish its funds.
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McDade is eager for the gates to be opened at this time of year when native plants bloom. “I know the garden is part of the psychic wellness plan for so many people who come to walk it every day,” she said. “I got so many messages during the pandemic [when the garden was closed] from people saying, ‘I’ll never take the garden for granted again.’
“But the garden is still beautiful. Large areas look as if nothing ever happened. It is unpredictable how the wind interacts with the trees. It’s sad, but we’ll be back.”