UC Berkeley News


Fauna man in a flora world
Having ‘retired,’ briefly, from two deanships and a 40-year campus career, zoologist Paul Licht has a new assignment — this time among the 34 acres of native plants that inhabit the UC Botanical Garden

| 10 March 2004


Arisaema sikokianum, commonly called a cobra lily, is found in the garden’s moistest habitat, the Asia section.
Janet Williams photo

A long career in academia can leave one with some blind spots. For Paul Licht, former biosciences dean and L&S executive dean, one of those lacunae is water-permeable concrete.

Despite advanced degrees and four decades on the Berkeley faculty — nine of them as a top academic administrator dealing with major capital projects — nothing in Licht’s past prepared him to talk pavement surfaces with the Northern California Concrete Alliance. Such issues matter, though, in Licht’s position as director of the University of California Botanical Garden. A life scientist and an avid backyard gardener, Licht hopes “to leave the place in better shape” — a plainspoken goal that necessitates many improvements to the garden’s infrastructure, since its plant collections “are in reasonably good shape,” he says, but its facilities are in dire need of attention.

Licht is a passionate booster of the UC institution — one of the most diverse botanical collections in the country and the world, he’s quick to point out, and the campus’s only natural history museum (there are six in all) consisting of living specimens. Established in 1890 to support teaching and research in plant biology, the garden now boasts more than 13,000 different kinds of plants from every continent except Antarctica — virtually all collected from native habitats and accompanied by complete data on their natural origin. It includes a large number of rare and endangered species. Early horticulturalists had the foresight to organize the garden’s plantings by habitat — a potent tool, it turns out, for studying divergent evolution, or how plants in different locations have evolved to deal with the similar conditions.

Licht brings energy, even a sense of urgency, to his attempt to broadcast the virtues of this garden beyond the botanical profession (where they’re well appreciated) to the rest of the world (where, he says, they’re not). Even Bay Area nature lovers and, amazingly, local gardening clubs are often oblivious to the world-class botanical “museum” in their midst. Institutions like the garden depend on public support, he believes, so the information gap is something he takes personally.

“It hurts me when I’m at a nursery and I meet customers who have never been to the garden,” says Licht. “It blows me away!”

Ironies at play
Licht’s role at the UC Botanical Garden has its ironies. For one, he’s a zoologist by profession, not a plant expert. Since joining the faculty in 1964, he’s spent four decades on campus studying reptiles, amphibians, and, most recently, hyenas — the latter in the study colony located just uphill from the bot garden. “You can hear them at night,” he says.

Then, too, Licht, 66, is supposed to have left behind the stresses of administration. Last June he retired from his faculty position in integrative biology and his two deanships. A gardening enthusiast and a longtime member of the UC garden, he considered joining its legions of volunteers in his retirement. “I want to be one of them,” he says, nodding through his office window at people tending potted plants for the garden’s spring plant sale. “They’re my role model.”

But his past caught up with him. Instead of completing the 18-week docent training, Licht was drafted to direct the garden. He started in August, bringing leadership experience, fundraising acumen, a life-sciences background, and, he says (“trying to give myself a botanical credential”), a long acquaintance with botanists and issues in plant biology. As dean, Licht oversaw the reorganization of the campus’s life sciences program, renovation of Barker Hall and Valley Life Sciences Building, and fundraising for the new Stanley Hall. He’ll need to tap that experience to address the garden’s challenges.

One of the most urgent of which, for Licht, is the garden’s entrance, at the edge of one of Centennial Drive’s tight, steep curves. “This is one of the greatest collections of plants, and it has one of the ugliest entrances,” he says of the chain-link gateway shared by service vehicles and some 40,000 visitors a year.

Others before him have tried to build a welcoming point of entry. This time, he’s come up with a plan that can be both afforded and approved. The project — complete with paved terrace and shaded seating — is expected to cost around $500,000. Licht is in the process of raising much of this amount from small contributions (“so that as many people as possible feel included”) and donated building materials (hence his conversations with the Concrete Alliance and the American Fencing Association).

Plans for the garden entrance are viewable at botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu, the garden’s website. Work should begin in early fall — not a moment too soon for Licht. “I’m not famous for my patience,” he says. “I’d like to start yesterday.”

Changing tastes
Frustrations notwithstanding, Licht’s demanding role in “retirement” hasn’t diminished his pleasure in backyard gardening — a pastime he first took up, ironically, as “an outlet for the stress of being in administration.” Before or after a day of meetings, even a few minutes pulling weeds or tending a sick plant in his garden proved immensely therapeutic — though he did soil a number of good dress ties in the process, he recalls.

Licht still gardens at home on a daily basis — though with a stricter eye for what he plants. Exposure to the botanical garden’s plethora of elegant native specimens has soured him, he says, on big, showy, cultivars “pumped up” through breeding “to fulfill a need in people.”

Shovel in hand, he digs out the offenders and replaces them with the kinds of undoctored species he’s come to appreciate through daily exposure to UC’s extraordinary plant collection. In commercial nurseries one can find, for instance, a large array of dramatic “man-made” lilies. But, says Licht, there’s “nothing more beautiful” than their native California counterpart — “dark orange with black spots, and a beautiful bell shape.” He traces its shape in the air.