Garden reinvents outdoor experience

by Steven Felschundneff |

Although everyone was wearing a mask, one could still sense the warm smiles as four staffers at the California Botanic Garden welcomed the COURIER to their campus last week.

And why not smile? These industrious women were not about to let a pandemic spoil the fun of visiting one of Claremont’s oldest and much beloved institutions.

Anyone who has been in Claremont a few years knows the garden by its previous name, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which was changed earlier this year to better reflect the garden’s focus on native plants from throughout the Golden State.

A host of events celebrating the new moniker was scheduled, but when the pandemic forced the garden to close in March, it also put an end to those plans.

California Botanic Garden has since reopened, but now requires guests to make pre-paid reservations online so staff can control the number of people in the garden, as well as keeping admission personnel from having to handle money or credit cards. Members do not need to make appointments.

Once inside the 86-acre park, you feel like you have it to yourself, according to Visitor Experience Coordinator Danielle Wildasinn.

“We were really keen to reopen as soon as we could,” Executive Director Lucinda McDade said. “One of the things we learned about COVID is that the outdoors is one of the safest places to be. I joke that our garden is part of the sanity plan for a lot of people. Just being able to get outdoors, take a walk and breathe fresh air is important for a lot of people.”

The garden’s gift shop is another victim of the virus. According to Ms. McDade, gift shops at smaller institutions like California Botanic Garden are more of an amenity than a money maker because staff time is expensive. The gift shop was also often missed because it was somewhat hidden in the 1950s-era administration building lobby.

Staff reimagined the gift shop, creating a kiosk adjacent to the main entrance offering items visitors might need during their visit, including reusable water bottles, hats and walking sticks, according to Retail Operations Coordinator Vanessa Ortega. The shop, scheduled to open on October 8, will also offer gifts patrons may purchase when leaving, such as botanic garden themed souvenirs, tee shirts, books, toys and a small selection of native plants. The new location is also more convenient for people who just want to visit the gift shop without paying admission to the park.

During COVID times the garden has shifted focus to provide a diverse range of virtual offerings, including podcasts and videos exploring different concepts relating to California’s native flora and fauna. The most popular one was about a baby owl named “Lo,” for little owl.

The garden has also offered several events that combine something tangible with online experiences, such as the Taste Wild box offered this summer. Guests received four desserts made with native plants, along with recipes and tasting notes, and were invited to a Zoom webinar moderated by Ms. Wildasinn, that further explored cooking with native plants and in particular the treats in the box. Taste Wild number two is coming up with savory treats as opposed to sweet.

Every June the garden hosts the immensely popular Butterfly Pavilion, which of course was cancelled along with all other events. To replace it they created a do-it-yourself My Butterfly Garden Box that included all necessary items to lure wild butterflies to one’s home garden. The box included three native plant seedlings with flowers that attract adult butterflies, a mixed seed packet, plant labels, an activity book, and a butterfly identification guide. Participants could then tune into an online class to learn how to use the items in the box.

This month the garden will offer an activity box to replace the Things that go Bump in the Night event, which explores the nocturnal activities of the various creatures inhabiting the garden.

The “Bump” activity box is loaded with items to boost nocturnal knowledge, including a sterilized owl pellet, kid-safe dissection tools and tray, a bone chart, an activity book with pages to color, crayons, a plush bat puppet, an amphibian origami craft, native seeds to attract nighttime pollinators, and a creepy crawly surprise. Upgrade to the VIP box and receive life-like moth wings to wear while exploring the box.

Community Education Coordinator Kristen Barker is responsible for much of the work that goes into the boxes, including the illustrations in the activity and coloring books. Christina Varnava, one of the garden’s graduate students, creates the booklets’ content.

The Bump boxes go on sale October 1 and can be picked up at the garden beginning October 16. They cost is $65, but members get a five-dollar discount. The VIP box is $90 or $80 for members.

Guests are invited to continue the exploration of the garden with a nocturnal themed visit to solve the Things that Go Bump scavenger hunt. A map will contain riddles to help locate stations hidden throughout the garden. The scavenger hunt will be held October 3 to 31 during regular operating hours, Tuesday through Sunday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

A copy of the scavenger hunt map can be printed from the garden’s website, or picked up at the admissions kiosk. You can also use your smart phone to access the map. You do not need to buy the Bump box to go on the scavenger hunt but will have to pay the entrance fee $10 for adults, $6 for students and seniors, $4 for children ages 3-12. Those under three and members get in for free.

The popular Grow Native Nursery will open in stages beginning in the middle of October. Acorn members, those who donate $250 a year, will get the first peek at the native plants, followed by members and then the public. This year, however, you must place your order online and a garden employee will select the pants and provide a curbside pickup time.


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