Set up on a hill above the San Joaquin Freshwater Marsh, the peaceful setting of the UCI Arboretum belies the important work and uniqueness of what is going on.

For the arboretum’s gardens are not only home to the largest collection of South African bulbs in North America, but its employees also work diligently to preserve rare and endangered plant species.

According to museum scientist Charlie O’Neill, who has worked at the arboretum for the past 12 years, this specialization in South African plants has two reasons--local climate and similarity of the variety of bulbs and plants.


“Both our climate and that of South Africa is Mediterranean, so we don’t have to rely on special greenhouses and the like to grow the plants,” O’Neill said. “Plus, South Africa is a very rich bulbous area . . . In fact, there are more plant species there than anywhere else in the world.”

The arboretum is about 12 acres, with 10 of those acres landscaped and two undeveloped.

There are more than 5,000 plant and flower species on display, focusing on the rare and unusual. The flowering bulbs include raregladiolus, corn lilies, Africanirises, cape cowslips,cyrtanthus and baboon flowers, all collected in Africa.

A large collection of several different aloe species as well as other succulents like cacti are also on display. Mixed and South African shrub gardens and a sand dune display round out the collection.

The arboretum also houses a “gene bank,” a resource center for seeds and pollen of rare and endangered plant species. The materials are stored at sub-zero temperatures so they can be kept indefinitely.

UCI Arboretum is nonprofit and receives no money from the university. Its operating budget comes through private research grants, donations, its large annual bulb sale in August and several smaller sales.

“This recent bulb sale (on Aug. 10) was our largest and most successful ever since its inception 10 years ago,” O’Neill said.


Beginning in mid-September, the arboretum will hold small bulb sales each Saturday through the fall months, he added.

The arboretum is also home to the International Bulb Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to research and education of bulbous plants, especially those in the amaryllis, iris and lily families. For more information on the society or for subscription information about its journal, Herbertia , contact Elisabeth Lassanyi at (714) 725-2909.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Saturday

Address: UC Irvine’s North Campus, Campus Drive at Jamboree Road, Irvine

Telephone: (714) 856-5833

Miscellaneous information: There is no admission charge, but donations are gladly accepted.