Staff Profile: Director Ellen Simms Nurtures Big Plans for Botanical Garden
By Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
Simms arrived in January from the University of Chicago, where she was associate professor of ecology and evolution. Her field is plant population biology, which investigates how plant populations survive, how new populations are established, how they respond to environmental change, why they become invasive and why they become extinct. Her specialty is how plants deal with their consumers -- from the tiniest insect to a munching cow.
Obviously energized by her new post, Simms has big plans for the Botanical Garden, which she calls "one of the three or four best in the country. This is an amazing, world class collection on a beautiful site," she says. "The diversity of the collection is phenomenal. Most of the specimens were collected in the wild, which makes this garden a living museum. The maturity of the plantings also makes it very special."
Simms is spearheading a new master plan for the garden which will focus on a greater commitment to research, teaching (both Berkeley and K-12 students) and community outreach. "I look forward to working on this project with UC faculty and the outstanding garden staff," she says.
Several building projects are already in the planning stages: a new, state-of-the-art research greenhouse and research garden; renovation of the Strawberry Canyon Chemical Facility into a center for research and training in plant population biology; replacement of the garden's largest display greenhouse; and remodeling the library, which will be open to visitors for the first time ever.
Simms is also working with colleagues in integrative biology to establish a sorely needed greenhouse on the roof of the Valley Life Sciences Building (VLSB).
With its more than 21,000 specimens representing 13,000 species from around the world, the UC Botanical Garden is an important resource for researchers worldwide. Because plants don't live forever and future researchers may need to reexamine the subjects of earlier research, the garden is embarking on the huge task of preserving samples of all its specimens at the University and Jepson Herbaria in VLSB.
A new plant program has just been funded that will introduce unique and interesting plants from the garden, both naturally evolved and developed, to the horticultural community.
Oversight of the Botanical Garden was transferred from the College of Natural Resources to the Vice Chancellor for Research three years ago.
On a mid-March tour of the garden, Simms proudly points out the recently renovated Japanese pool with its newt colony, the Chinese medicinal herb garden, cacti in the New World desert collection dating back to the 1930s, and magnificent, mature rhododendrons in full bloom.
"The garden is an underdeveloped, under-exploited resource," notes Simms. "The campus and the community could benefit more from it."
The garden recently added partnerships with Berkeley elementary and middle schools to its work with Bay Area schoolchildren.
Campus classes have always used the garden as a laboratory, including those in art, anthropology, photography and paleontology.
About 60,000 people visit the garden each year, many on docent-led tours. Some 200 volunteers give about 20,000 hours to the garden each year.
Simms grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where she learned a love of gardens from her mother and a love of science from her father. "An outreach program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History was also a big influence," she recalls.
Simms chose UC Santa Barbara for her bachelors and masters degrees because it offered the most field biology courses. She took every single one. In 1983 she received her PhD in plant ecology from Duke University.
This semester Simms is focused on planning and funding for garden projects. In the fall she will begin to teach genetics and evolutionary biology.