A new leading man

Times Staff Writer

A reputation preceded Mark Wourms when he was named to lead the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden: goose killer. In the summer of 2002, as director of the Kansas City Zoo, he cut short a population explosion of Canada geese by rounding up 300 of them for slaughter at a local poultry plant, then organizing distribution of their plucked and cleaned carcasses to the poor. Now that he’s been on the job for eight weeks, Wourms wants to make one thing clear.

“I love the peacocks,” says the new chief executive officer of the arboretum.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 7, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 07, 2004 Home Edition Home Part F Page 6 Features Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Class dates -- In a list of classes at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden that ran last Thursday, the dates for the San Gabriel Valley Cactus and Succulent Society show were wrong. The show is Saturday and Sunday, not Oct. 16 and 17.

He refers to the more than 100 peacocks that belong to the arboretum but routinely hop the fence and forage for snails, slugs and grubs in the gardens of neighboring Arcadia.


Even if Wourms weren’t keen to quash the peacocks-in-peril jokes, it would be hard to keep them up. Meet the man many hope will restore the arboretum to the glory days of yore, and he’s more like the original Mr. Gee Whiz. The Ohio-born ecologist loves not only the peacocks but also the helmeted guinea fowl, the red-eared slider turtles, the sulfur butterflies and even, within limits, the Canada geese.

His brand of Midwestern enthusiasm is so rarely found outside of Jimmy Stewart movies, it doesn’t seem quite real. “Hello, ladies!” he calls to a pair of visitors. As we pass a stand of eucalyptuses, then pull up to a grove of bamboos, he says, “To me this just shouts ‘arboretum.’ This is where ‘Tarzan’ was shot, and ‘Gilligan’s Island!’ ”

He’s not being facetious. He knows that “Tarzan” was set in Africa, but bamboo is from Asia and eucalyptus from Australia. He knows that Gilligan, Ginger and the rest weren’t castaways in the Indonesian archipelago. What he means is: Only in Los Angeles could a tree out of “Crocodile Dundee” become background for the king of the jungle.

To Hollywood directors, the plants made a good green backdrop for Johnny Weissmuller. Now Wourms would like us to see them afresh, to understand where they come from and the profound web of relationships that evolved between them, wildlife and humans.

That’s the educational part of his job. The financial one will be to do for this garden what he did for the Kansas City Zoo, which was “one of the 10 worst zoos in the country,” he says, when he got there in 1992. He looked at its assets (a “quite significant” Asian elephant and a Bornean orangutan) and decided the public simply had no idea what it was missing. After he somehow enticed people back to see those animals through his wondering eyes, he led the zoo as it put together and managed to get passed a bond measure for $50 million worth of upgrades. When he left, $72 million had been put into the place.

When the arboretum hired him, it too was down on its luck. Since the passage of tax-capping Proposition 13 in 1978, it has lost half of its gardening staff and a nationally recognized research center with six full-time scientists. After a 1993 merger with the Department of Parks and Recreation, all but one of the labs were gutted. Earlier this summer the librarian retired, and she has not been replaced.

Its history suggests that reversing the arboretum’s fortunes will be more complicated than extracting more money from the county. Physician Samuel Ayres Jr. set up a foundation to create the arboretum in 1948 from the estate of developer Lucky Baldwin; the county took over management of it shortly afterward. In 1998, foundation and county settled on a joint operating agreement.

Wourms’ job will be to make that marriage work. If it sounds straightforward, it’s salutary to note that the last man who tried barely got out of the starting gate. The previous chief executive, Peter Atkins, will be remembered for overseeing the name change from the Arboretum of Los Angeles County to the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. He lasted 4 1/2 years.

Meanwhile, the neighboring Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens conducted a formidable capital campaign and broke ground on a massive new conservatory, learning center and children’s garden.

Oddly, Wourms doesn’t seem jealous. While the Huntington is gloriously formal, the arboretum’s signature charm has always been a drowsy, parklike quality. Wourms wants to make sure it remains a place where children can tear around unfettered, adults can spread out a blanket and picnic, and courting couples can sneak in at night to do what couples do.

At the same time, he wants to educate us on the sly. As the word “arboretum” suggests, the place is really a tree museum and teaching-learning center. The idea is: The public goes for a walk in the park but comes out knowing what sort of bush supplies our morning coffee, the wood that becomes an Aboriginal didgeridoo, the herb that makes absinthe or the bamboo wood that keeps Pier 1 in business.

Wourms apologizes for being unable to show renderings by landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power illustrating how the arboretum’s most significant plant collections, such as the Australian section, might be better highlighted. Not everyone in the public-private partnership has seen them, and he doesn’t want to offend anyone. The changes will be small but meaningful, he promises.

“Details separate a great garden from a good one,” he says. Immediately after arriving, he gathered the staff of 40 and 200 volunteers and canvassed them for ideas for instant improvements.

Within weeks, hundreds of plant identification tags went into the ground near formerly untagged plants. The spiel given on tram rides is about to be spiced up with stories about Tarzan and Lucky Baldwin. Wourms hopes some interesting details about the 450 different birds that pass through L.A. County make their way into the tram speech.

It’s too early to talk about big changes that will follow, he says. However, for the arboretum to survive, pride engendered by attention to all those details will need to inspire a serious capital campaign. It must sharpen and promote what might be the facility’s most important service: its public education programs. It runs the most comprehensive series of public courses on landscaping, kitchen gardening, botanical illustration and propagation in the state.

Staff now routinely run clinics on fertilizing, mulching, controlling pests and good garden practice in general.

Perhaps the trickiest question: How to manage a collection of exotic plants in an era of impending water shortages and in one of Southern California’s West Nile hot spots? When Baldwin created a lagoon at the foot of the San Gabriels in the 1880s, it seemed a fun idea. When Ayres came back from Hawaii in the 1930s and decided that L.A. needed a museum of tropical curiosities, water was cheap, and land was plentiful.

Now the opposite is true. Imported plants are the norm, and native flora and fauna are the new exotics. “Plant introduction is huge in the history of the garden. That’s dying out,” says Wourms. “It’s going to come full circle.”

So Wourms has his work cut out. Getting Angelenos to luxuriate on arboretum grounds is easy. Enticing the same public to open its checkbooks in order to return a plant museum masquerading as a park to its former glory will be an uphill struggle. Convincing it to turn down its sprinkler systems may be the trickiest proposition of all.

But he is going to try. And he’s starting with smiles and waves. “Hello!” he calls to a family sitting down to lunch. “Are you enjoying your visit?”


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Soon to be sprouting in Arcadia

Learn about a new array of plants, and learn to cook some of them too, at one of the events to be held at the arboretum. Among the sessions scheduled this fall:


Winter show and sale: The San Gabriel Valley Cactus and Succulent Society exhibits succulent pelargoniums, wild relatives of the common geranium; and cyphostemma, succulent members of the grape family. Oct. 16 to 17. (626) 821-3222.


Gourd Fair L.A.: Entertainment, classes, art exhibits and children’s hands-on gourd crafts. Life-size scarecrows displayed. Oct. 22 to 24. Free with arboretum

admission. Visit or


For committed gardeners: Outside speakers and class members present new and interesting horticultural ideas in this class, and members organize private garden tours, plant raffles and field trips. Topics include hardscape, containers, hedges and water features. Fridays through Nov. 19. $58. (626) 821-4623.


Family Adventures: Each Saturday features a different theme relating to nature or the environment and includes activities such as a short story, a talk or a walk, and a take-home nature craft activity. 2 p.m. the first Saturday of the month. $20 per family. Pre-registration required: (626) 821-4623.


Gardening and Cooking in a California Climate. Class focuses on a new palette of plants and how to cook them, with instruction by chef Steven Mary from Pasadena’s Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel. Tuesdays through Nov. 9. $110. Registration: (626) 821-4623.


-- Lisa Boone