In 1894, Julia Morgan, who became one of California’s most esteemed architects, was the only woman in her civil engineering class at the University of California, Berkeley. She befriended Bernard Maybeck, who encouraged her training and taught her to develop a view of architecture that considered the natural surroundings as an integral part of each building’s design.
So it’s fitting that one of her designs for the UC Berkeley campus should find a new home in the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley (UCBG). Girton Hall, later known as Senior Women’s Hall, originally served as a childcare center. In the fall of 2014, the building was moved from its original location on the main campus near the Haas School of Business, up the hill to the garden where it was situated to overlook the California section of the botanical garden.
Well-known local landscape architect Ron Lutsko was hired to design the gardens surrounding the newly renamed Julia Morgan Hall. Working in conjunction with the garden’s horticultural staff, especially Anthony Garza, UCBG-origin cultivars of California natives were chosen from the garden’s vast collection, augmented by commercially available California natives. Plants were selected for their looks and durability, keeping the site’s microclimates in mind. The initial planting was finished in the spring of 2015 and, as is the case with any new design, additional plants were later added to fill in and meet certain site-specific needs.
The exposure of the beds played a major role in the garden’s design. The largest bed is north facing and slopes down to the Hall’s main entrance. That slope and the imperious shadow cast by a towering netleaf oak (Quercus rugosa) determined plant choices for this area. The upper part of the bed was planted with Southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris ‘Banksianum’), Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), yerba buena (Clinopodium douglasii), Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana), Marjorie Schmidt mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii ssp. californicus ‘Marjorie Schmidt’), blue Madonna huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum ‘Blue Madonna’), and giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata). These plants are tough and adaptable. The two ferns were chosen for their ability to tolerate some sun; the Southern maidenhair is delicate and a low spreader, while Woodwardia, the largest fern endemic to North America, can easily reach four to six feet tall and as wide. Both ferns are surprisingly drought tolerant once established. An interesting stand of Juncus patens ‘E. Mey’ is situated at the bottom of the slope to catch natural runoff and makes for a unique mini-forest.
Heading west along the path that separates the hall garden from the California section of the UCBG, visitors are greeted by a slender bed featuring drought-tolerant, sun-loving natives. Several Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman,’ a variety that can easily reach ten feet in height, are planted against the wall, underplanted with low-growing Epilobium septentrionale ‘Wayne’s Silver’ and Erigeron glaucus ‘Wayne Roderick’, and enlivened by colorful and joyous Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean Gold’. Comarostaphylis arbutoides, native from Mexico south to Costa Rica, anchors one end of the bed. A member of the Ericaceae this one “alien” plant was left in place when this corner of the garden’s former Mexico/Central America section was cleared for the project.
Turning the corner, the garden transitions to the west-facing bed. The garden is in the Berkeley Hills and slopes toward the bay, so this bed gets a great deal of afternoon sun. Once again, the focus was on tough, drought-tolerant sun lovers. The expansive bed is anchored by two Arctostaphylos ‘Lutsko’s Pink’, one of the showiest of all manzanitas, with glossy, dark green leaves and pink-blushed flowers in spring. Also of note, this variety’s mahogany-colored trunk develops a beautifully contorted shape.
Just to the right of the manzanitas is a UCBG original, Ceanothus ‘Berkeley Skies’. UCBG horticulturist Chris Carmichael notes, “This ceanothus, a random seedling of unknown parentage from the California Area at UCBG, was selected by Roger Raiche. It’s upright, very early flowering, and a pleasing shade of light blue.” The bed also features several Arctostaphylos pajaroensis ‘Warren Roberts’, a low-growing manzanita, joined by one of the most popular California buckwheats, Eriogonum grande var. rubescens. The woody plants are nicely contrasted by Calamagrostis foliosa, a feathery grass that reaches a foot tall and up to two feet wide and bears arching, silvery-purple seed heads in early summer that age to a golden wheat color and last well into the fall. The overall effect of this bed is muted; it was later decided to add a splash of color with a number of Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean’ hybrids.
Plantings on the northeast side of the hall reflect the shady environment with a plant palette of soothing tones dominated by cool greens. A bank of giant chain fern backs plantings of stately Heuchera maxima and Heuchera ‘Old La Rochette’ (H. maxima crossed with H. sanguinea); the latter is a lovely hybrid with lighter green leaves and profuse pink flowers. More western columbines, delightful clumps of Douglas iris, and a thicket of yerba buena fill in the foreground.
In a very short time, Julia Morgan Hall has become the social center of this very community-oriented botanical garden. It serves as a meeting space for the many professional and public groups closely linked to the garden and hosts a wide variety of UCBG lectures and events. Recent events have featured a visit from a Cuban horticulturist who spoke about Cuban ferns and a noted horticulturist from a major herbarium in France who lectured on a group of palms that are his research specialty.
Looking ahead, Julia Morgan Hall looks to serve a vital role in the West Coast horticulture community. Upgraded with modern amenities and a new deck that overlooks the surrounding gardens, the newly sited building looks every bit an organic part of its environment—which is exactly how Julia Morgan would have wished it.