August 22, 2008
Author: Dr. Robert Lyons
Photographer: Dr. Robert Lyons
The last destination within our 2008 North American Experience itinerary was the Arboretum at the University of Nevada/Las Vegas (UNLV), a campus tucked in amongst such street names as Tropicana, Flamingo and Paradise, and perhaps better recognized for a basketball coach named Tarkanian than its Champion Trees. Well, sports and urban geography aside, our visit to this Arboretum highlighted many reasons to break away from the Strip for a change of pace, or spend some time studying a challenging relationship between Arboretum management and UNLV administration.
We began our tour with Susan Jones and Paula Garrett, two enthusiastic supporters of the UNLV Arboretum with a strong commitment throughout their employment with UNLV. Susan and Paula distributed an excellent Self-Guided Tour brochure and immediately pointed out that we would start our walk at the Xeriscape Garden, which is often considered the “heart of the campus” and documented as one of the favorite places among UNLV students and staff. Yet, before even taking a few steps, we learned that this campus was not always planted with a xeric philosophy in mind. Prior to this garden’s completion in 1988, the campus resembled so many others around the country, with a spreading greenscape of irrigated lawns and no areas to depict the desert environment that typified Las Vegas. With the blessing of the UNLV’s president at the time, a transformation began. Today, many of the plant materials within this garden, as well as those located within other areas of campus, serve as important teaching elements for students in the Landscape Architecture program and at the nearby community college.
Our hosts pointed out that the Arboretum flourished under Dennis Schwartzel, the former Head of Facilities and Grounds for UNLV. His cooperative spirit with internal staffers, including Susan and Paula, led to an orchestrated development of the 335 acre campus and care for its 3000+ trees, and a growing communication between the university’s own grounds staff and academic faculty and staff. With Schwartzel now retired from UNLV and the Arboretum placed under the Director of the Harry Reid Center, “Targets of Opportunity” were identified within the UNLV Master Plan, as were “Heritage” spaces. One such space, the East Mall, contained many of the oldest trees on campus and would be left undisturbed for the sake of the trees themselves and their potential maturation. Champion Trees, a designation by the State Division of Forestry that recognizes the largest specimens in the state, can be found throughout the Arboretum and we saw several during our visit, including the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), weeping mulberry (Morus alba pendula ‘Chaparral’), and chir pine (Pinus roxburghii), to name a few.
We continued to “walk and talk” our way amongst buildings, planned gardens, and open spaces. As we approached the Bigelow Physics building, Susan made a point of directing our attention to the specific tree species, their positions, and their relationship with the surrounding hardscape and architecture of this building. A single apple tree may have appeared as an unusual choice for its central location within this building’s small plaza, but its significance to the field of physics was clear as a bell, at least to some of us! Yes, it was Isaac Newton’s own purported encounter with a falling apple and its “impact” on the field of physics that will forever be a reminder to passing students…..hope springs eternal! And about that curved façade to the Bigelow building? Well, that represents a sine wave with statuesque, linear palm trees strategically planted (and mathematically spaced) at the maximum points along the façade’s wavy exterior….clever, indeed.
Finally, at least for inclusion in this blog, we were introduced to yet another dimension of the Arboretum at UNLV. Our tour came to a close at one of the newest campus buildings, one which is also LEED certified. The gardens surrounding this structurally unique center for Science and Technology contain native Nevada species, including specimens that had been salvaged from development projects. Nevada staunchly protects its native plant species, most notably cactus, making it illegal to sell or otherwise acquire specimens for landscape use without proper documentation. Paula quickly pointed out the appropriate tags attached to each of the salvaged cacti, indicating complete compliance with state law and a renewed chance for survival for these plants.
At the conclusion of our visit to the UNLV Arboretum, all of us had a new or renewed appreciation for a campus-based arboretum, especially one in the middle of a desert, and a better sense of the challenges presented by changing governance. It was an eye-opening learning experience and we left hoping to return in the future to see a continuation of the fine leadership provided by individuals like Susan and Paula.