Gavilan College Arboretum

Recognizing an established landscape and its history

By: Mary McKenna
Mary McKenna

Mary McKenna has a BS in Biology from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and a MA from UC Davis in…

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An outdoor classroom at Gavilan College Arboretum surrounding the Duck Pond, left to right: Chinese hackberry (Celtis sinensis), coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’), and valley oak (Quercus lobata).  Photo: Jane Edberg

An outdoor classroom at Gavilan College Arboretum surrounding the Duck Pond, left to right: Chinese hackberry (Celtis sinensis), coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’), and valley oak (Quercus lobata). Photo: Jane Edberg

Have you ever seen a sign while you’re driving down the freeway and wondered, “What would I find if I headed that direction?” Follow signs on the 101, just south of Gilroy, California, for Gavilan College and you will find a beautiful, small campus nestled against the eastern side of the coast range. Gavilan College is named for the Gabilan Range, which neighbors the Santa Cruz Mountains, and extends from San Benito County south as far as the Pinnacles in Monterey County.

Valley oak (Quercus lobata) shelters a gazebo across from the Gavilan College student center fronted by London plane trees (Platanus ×hispanica). Photo: Jane Edberg

Valley oak (Quercus lobata) shelters a gazebo across from the Gavilan College student center fronted by London plane trees (Platanus ×hispanica). Photo: Jane Edberg

The central California campus seems to have grown out of the hills and was vegetated with oak woodland and chaparral before it was developed. Today, the college is landscaped with a collection of remarkable and sustainable plants including California natives, a large number of Australian trees and shrubs, as well as trees and shrubs from Central and South America, and Asia. The landscape is a respite from the nearby Silicon Valley and an oasis for wildlife. Gabilan, or Gavilan, is the Spanish word for kestrel, or according to other translations, red-tailed hawk. Both are common birds of prey in the area.

The late Ray Williams, creator of the Gavilan College landscape.  Photo: Gavilan College archives

The late Ray Williams, creator of the Gavilan College landscape. Photo: Gavilan College archives

Gavilan College Arboretum, recently renamed the Ray Williams Arboretum at Gavilan College, is both new and old. Most of the plants were installed between 1966 and 1968, but the arboretum was not founded until 2013. The arboretum, which encompasses an area at the south end of the campus, was established to promote public awareness of the unique landscape through education, research, and conservation opportunities. The mature landscape also offers visitors the opportunity to see trees and shrubs as they will look 40 to 50 years after planting.

A celebration marking the arboretum’s official opening, attended by members of the Gavilan College board of trustees, Gavilan College staff, and community members, took place on June 10, 2014. Featured speakers at the event, Matt Ritter and Barrie Coate, talked about the history and importance of the landscape.

California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) with fruit. Photo: Jane Edberg

California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) with fruit. Photo: Jane Edberg

Gavilan College opened in 1968, the new incarnation of San Benito College, which opened in 1919. The college architect was the firm of Wurster, Bernardi, and Emmons. Ray Williams, a nurseryman from Watsonville, California, designed the landscape. Mr. Williams was especially interested in Australian plants, and had many seeds shipped to him to be propagated at his nursery. At the opening ceremony, Mr. Coate told stories of Ray Williams, “He was not a landscape designer, he was a plantsman. He was handed a nurseryman’s dream: a large piece of land and the ability to create whatever landscape he wanted.”

Orange gum (Eucalyptus prava) foliage detail. Photo: Jane Edberg

Orange gum (Eucalyptus prava) foliage detail. Photo: Jane Edberg

One of the first orders of business was to direct winter stormwater away from the campus buildings. Williams did this by creating a series of ponds connected by a channel, which are today known as the Duck Pond, the Upper Pond, and Gavilan Creek. Today the Duck Pond is a favorite of local children and inhabited by Pacific pond turtles—and, unfortunately, introduced box turtles. Great blue herons, egrets, cormorants, and other birds often visit the pond, which is surrounded by a variety of mature trees, including coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and valley oak (Q. lobata), as well as Argyle apple (Eucalyptus cinerea), Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’), and London plane tree (Platanus ×hispanica syn. P. ×acerifolia). In spite of their diverse origins, the trees blend together seamlessly. This artful combining of sustainable plants can be seen throughout the campus.

Magenta spring blooms on Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis).  Photo: Jane Edberg

Magenta spring blooms on Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis). Photo: Jane Edberg

Walking west from the duck pond, mature examples of Chilean soap bark (Quillaja saponaria) and prickly-leaved paper bark (Melaleuca styphelioides) can be seen. There is a beautiful specimen of Nichol’s willowleafed peppermint (Eucalyptus nicholii) and you’ll find an Omeo gum (Eucalyptus neglecta) located at the southeast corner of the administration parking lot; the specimen is a National Champion tree and listed on the California Big Tree Registry.

 A 40-year old ‘Howard McMinn’ manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’) near the upper pond. Photo: Jane Edberg

A 40-year old ‘Howard McMinn’ manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’) near the upper pond. Photo: Jane Edberg

An exceptional stand of ‘Howard McMinn’ manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’) can be found bordering the perimeter road between the administration building/student center and the upper parking lot. According to Mr. Coate, this is one of the oldest plantings of the ‘Howard McMinn’ introduction. Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) and bush anemone (Carpinteria californica) are found along Gavilan Creek where benches and tables provide opportunities to enjoy the shade. Around the Upper Pond and parking lot, you’ll find cork oak (Quercus suber), white ironbark (Eucalyptus leucoxylon), brittle gum (E. mannifera), gray pine (Pinus sabiniana), Coolabah apple (Angophora melanoxylon), weeping pittosporum (Pittosporum angustifolium), and summer holly (Comarostaphylis diversfolia). These plantings are a testament to the genius of Ray Williams and in the face of continued budget cuts and reductions in staff, the beauty of the landscape today is also a credit to the skill and dedication of the grounds crew.

Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) is a large evergreen shrub or small tree. Lavish blooms in the spring (as seen here) produce a fall crop of edible cherries loved by birds and wildlife.  Photo: Jane Edberg

Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) is a large evergreen shrub or small tree. Lavish blooms in the spring (as seen here) produce a fall crop of edible cherries loved by birds and wildlife. Photo: Jane Edberg

Plans for the arboretum include a California native plant demonstration garden—keeping in the tradition of Ray Williams, the garden will include a non-native Quillaja saponaria that is too beautiful to remove—a plant database, and further plant identification signage throughout campus. New and replacement plantings are also planned for the science courtyard and along Gavilan Creek.

Scarlet blooms on stiff bottlebrush (Callistemon rigidus) are a magnet for hummingbirds. Photo: Jane Edberg

Scarlet blooms on stiff bottlebrush (Callistemon rigidus) are a magnet for hummingbirds. Photo: Jane Edberg

To paraphrase Dr. Ritter, as we head toward further urbanization, we need places where we can find solace in nature and learn about the natural world. As the population of California continues to grow and our climate changes, it’s becoming increasingly important to conserve resources, especially water. The Gavilan College Arboretum illustrates how appropriate drought-tolerant plants can not only survive, but also thrive, creating an oasis in the suburban environment. The next time you are driving on 101 and need a break, please stop by. Gavilan College is less than one mile west of the freeway and is easy to find. Just follow the signs!


A glistening white bloom of the California native bush anemone (Carpenteria californica). Photo: Jane Edberg

A glistening white bloom of the California native bush anemone (Carpenteria californica). Photo: Jane Edberg

Jane Edberg is an art professor at Gavilan College where she currently teaches art appreciation, design, and photography. She has a Masters of Fine Arts with an emphasis in Photography from the University of California, Davis. Jane has exhibited her work nationally and internationally.