A "living museum," as the garden's director, Professor of Organismic Biology, Ecology and Evolution Arthur C. Gibson, aptly describes it, the seven-acre garden serves as a home to some 5,000 species of tropical and subtropical plants from around the world, as well as frogs, turtles, goldfish, streams and even a waterfall.
On any given day, visitors stroll the garden's sloping pathways, enjoy picnic lunches, or sit on stone benches to read or meditate. Schoolchildren march through on tours, breaking away from their guides to look for frogs. Visitors sometimes celebrate birthdays in the garden. Some have proposed marriage there, and couples have exchanged wedding vows under the leafy canopy.
Among the natural wonders to be seen in the garden is the tallest dawn redwood in North America that grows near the center of the garden beside a stream. The Metasequoia was once thought to be a fossil until it was found growing in central China in 1944. The garden's tree sprouted from seeds from China planted in 1948.
Two Eucalyptus grandis trees, natives of the Australian rain forest, were planted in the garden 40 years ago and now are among the tallest specimens in the United States.
Visitors will also find special collections of such plant groups as Malesian rhododendrons, the lily alliance, bromeliads, cycads, ferns, Mediterranean-type climate shrubs such as chaparral and native plants of the Hawaiian Islands.
"We have a special climatic niche," says Gibson, who has conducted botanical research in the deserts of Africa, the rain forests of Costa Rica and the high-elevation White Mountains of California. "We're four miles from the ocean and we get extra heat from the buildings around us, so we're not likely to ever freeze. We can grow things here outdoors that very, very few gardens in the U.S. can. You can do it in Hawaii, in Florida and here at UCLA."
Named for world-renowned horticulturist Mildred Mathias, the botanical garden came into being in 1929, when the university began classes in Westwood with a total of four buildings. A botany professor planted a nearby arroyo — a dry streambed — with trees and shrubs. Contributions of plants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other sources helped the garden grow.
The botanical garden is primarily a "green garden," Gibson explains.
"We're not trying to show off flowers," he says. "When you come here, you really get a feeling of a woodsy, forested area, rather than a lot of showy flowers."
The garden is also "green" in the sense that almost no pesticides are used, a practice that helps maintain the balance of plant, insect and animal life.
While no major botanical research is currently conducted in the garden, a few experiments are under way. For one, the shrub Deppea splendens, a member of the coffee family, is presumed to be extinct in the wild, but Gibson has successfully cultivated it here — so successfully, in fact, that a pair of cross-pollinated plant clones have developed fruit and seeds.