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If you head up Via Carta, past Campus Market and the athletic fields, you will come to the Environmental Horticulture Unit. Go past the flower shop and through the green house, then take a left. You will find yourself at the Leaning Pines Arboretum, one of the many hidden treasures here at Cal Poly. A five acre plot of land is devoted to plants native to the five Mediterranean climates in the world, California, Australia, South Africa, Chile, and of course the Mediterranean Basin. The horticulture unit originally resided where the Sierra Madre and Yosemite dormitories now stand but was relocated to a larger piece of land, its present location, which allowed room for the arboretum to be created.
Taking up about half the land area, the California garden was the original garden before the arboretum was expanded to include the four other regions. Aside from being the largest, the California garden is the most extensive collection as well. Within this garden, habitats come from all different regions of California except the Sierra Nevada range which is not a Mediterranean climate. They represent all the communities from Northern to Southern California such as native shrubs and grasses and coast live oak woodlands. The section of the garden that looks the most like my home in Marin County is a pond surrounded by redwoods with ferns and oxalis plants. This also happens to be the favorite collection of Chris Wassenberg.
Chris Wassenberg is a Cal Poly graduate from the Environmental Horticulture program. All the horticulture students are required to do ten hours of work in the unit outside of class. Chris chose to work in the arboretum, volunteering on a weekly basis until his third quarter when he was hired for a part time position. Now, three years after his graduation in 2001, Chris still works in the arboretum in addition to his normal job. He has risen to a middle management position, overseeing student projects and grounds maintenance.
The arboretum requires a lot of work form the students but it is not all maintenance.
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The arboretum is not just for the Environmental Horticulture students. It is a great place to go and relax in the many seating areas or to walk the extensive paths that wind their way through the beautiful vegetation. Most students do not utilize the arboretum. I would not even have known about it if it were not for our class visit. But now that I have returned again for a second time, I have found the value of losing myself in the natural landscape.
I was fascinated by all the plants I had never seen before even though they are native to California. The Banksia prionotes, otherwise known as the Acorn banksias, is an odd plant with long rectangular leaves that look as if they had been cut with pinking shears creating a zigzag edge. The buds are gigantic, white and orange, acorn shaped pods with short little feelers. Another thing that caught my eye was the abundance of Grevillea thelemannia or Magic Lantern plants. Named after their blooms, explosions of bright red and yellow among the vibrant green and white foliage, the Magic Lanterns add color to an otherwise grey-green landscape. In my walk around the garden, I came to a tree in a courtyard with a stone floor and rock benches ringing the clearing. I looked up at the tree towering over me and then to the sign at my feet to discover that it was a Silk Oak that dominated the sky overhead.
The arboretum is a wonderful resource for both the environmental horticulture students and all other Cal Poly students. It provides great hands on experience for those involved in landscaping or plant science and is an under-appreciated learning and recreation area for other students. I am not particularly interested in horticulture myself but I learned a lot about the different types of plant communities just from taking a leisurely stroll along the winding paths. I now see why so many people here at Poly are passionate about the Leaning Pines Arboretum. They volunteer their time above and beyond what their academics require of them and some even stay after graduation continuing to be involved. Unfortunately, the arboretum is often overlooked by students outside the horticulture program but at in reality the Leaning Pines Arboretum is a complex and beautiful resource created for and by Cal Poly students just waiting to be discovered. As for myself, I will be sure to return to the twisting paths and serene ponds when ever I feel the need to unwind in nature.