by Vanessa Handley, Director of Collections and Research, UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley
In April 2017, a team from the Garden traveled to the east Mojave Desert for a productive stint of field work. Our base was the Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, a remote and beautiful research station that is part of the UC Natural Reserve System (NRS).
It was our great fortune that our hosts, Director Jim André and Assistant Director Tasha La Doux, are both authorities on desert flora. They generously accompanied us on our initial field forays and provided a crash course in plants of the region. With the benefit of this jump start our team set out for several fruitful days of botanical exploration. Our objective was two-fold: 1) to survey underexplored areas of the reserve in order to collect vouchers (pressed plant specimens) to contribute to the Center’s herbarium and 2) to gather living materials to bring back to the Garden.
Each day of our collecting trip began at the mouth of Cottonwood Basin, a broad bajada within the crescent of the Granite Mountains. From this vantage point we’d set our sights on distant destinations along the collar of the mountains. Rising from the hot, sandy washes of the basin, we’d hike, scramble and boulder our way upward. Occasionally we’d come across the refreshing surprise of an active seep, replete with trickling water and emerald bryophytes. With persistence, we’d reach new bands of vegetation and, ultimately, ridges peppered with juniper, pine and lingering spring wildflowers. Our ascents were punctuated by frequent pauses to enjoy the breathtaking views … and to document and collect the diverse plants we encountered. At the end of the day, a new route back ensured additional discoveries as we followed the setting sun down slope for dinner.
At the end of the trip, these living materials—cuttings, whole plants, and seeds—were carefully processed and packaged for the long drive home. They are currently coming along nicely in our nursery and will soon find a home in a completely renovated California desert bed. Thanks to a generous donation from Lester and Anne Packer, we have been able to commence this renovation—a long desired project that will allow us to provide a more optimal context for our California desert collection.
Once construction is complete we will be planting out materials from our trip to the Mojave along with plants propagated or transplanted from the original desert display. These plantings will be augmented by additional desert collecting trips that are planned for 2018. Moving beyond the desert project, broader NRS collaborations are also being developed. Given our shared affiliation, the potential for synergies between UCBG and UC NRS is very exciting.