Take a walk up University Drive, go past Building 3, but stop before you get to the agriculture building. Turn to your left, step off the sidewalk and travel back in time. Way back.
You find yourself surrounded by ferns and dozens of spiny, palm-like plants. In the open, the sun is blazing hot, but the shade of trees provides a spot of cool tranquility.
OK, so you won’t actually be traveling back in time, but it might feel like it when you visit Cal Poly Pomona’s new Mesozoic Garden. The garden, which officially opens Monday, May 12, boasts a wide variety of plants that have remained essentially unchanged since dinosaurs walked the Earth.
Many of the plants that are familiar to us these days — especially those with flowers — had not yet evolved, so they don’t appear in the garden.
“Grasslands didn’t exist. All of these things that we imagine as landscapes, these things didn’t exist at that time,” says Biology Professor Edward Bobich, who has spearheaded efforts to develop the garden.
The plant life found in the garden largely consists of cycads, plants that are reminiscent of squat palm trees, but are actually much more ancient than palms.
Narrow dirt paths wind between the cycads and other slightly alien-looking plants, leading to a small pond stocked with floating ferns and water lilies, some of the earliest plants to evolve flowers. Insects flit above the surface of the water.
“We put all these little paths in here because kids love this stuff,” says Mike Brown, who has overseen the construction of the garden. “It makes a really nice outdoor classroom.”
It’s exactly what Bobich was aiming for.
“My whole vision was let’s create a space that’s a great teaching space,” Bobich says. “You can show [students] pictures on a slide, or you can walk them over to a garden with all of these plants that evolved millions of years ago. It really helps in the teaching of a lot of our introductory courses.”
Bobich says the idea came to him while he was looking for a new way to use the site after an old greenhouse was torn down a few years ago.
“One day I walked by and they were knocking it down. I thought to myself, ‘This would be a perfect location for a garden,’” Bobich says. “My first concept was for an evolutionary garden, and then I thought to myself, ‘What am I, crazy? This should be about the time of the dinosaurs.’
“You can’t miss when you’re talking about the time of the dinosaurs.”
The garden really began coming into its own when Bobich lucked into a treasure trove of cycads that were donated to them.
“One of my former students used to work for a man whose grandfather grew cycads in his back yard. He was getting too old to take care of them,” Bobich says. “That was the cherry on top. That pushed this garden from being good to great.”
Geology students, too, can learn something from the garden, which is landscaped with boulders and rocks formed during the Mesozoic.
“Each one of them has something to teach,” Brown says.
Some are functional as well.
“Our seating area consists of these big red blocks of sandstone,” Bobich says. “You’re sitting on rocks that are at least 70 million years old.”
That seating area helps the garden serve a secondary function as a respite from the hustle and bustle of campus.
“I envisioned it not only as a teaching space, but as a place to hang out,” Bobich says. “You feel secluded almost. That’s what I wanted, and Mike made that happen.”
And in true Cal Poly Pomona fashion, they turned the construction into a learning experience for students.
“The cool thing is this was all built by students,” Brown says. “No contractors were involved.”