History of Research at SBBG

Research at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden traces its roots to our first director, Frederic E. Clements. Dr. Clements envisioned the Garden as the first of a series of planting sites ranging from the sea shore to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains which could be used for investigations of plant adaptations. While Dr. Clements' vision was never fully realized, scientific investigation has been an integral part of the Garden's identity since its inception.

Dr. Maunsell Van Rensselaer, our first full-time Director (1936-1950), strongly encouraged undergraduate research and numerous students participated in research projects led by Garden staff and Research Associates. Several of those undergraduate students followed their experiences at the Garden with a life committed to botanical investigation. Clif Smith (A Flora of the Santa Barbara Region) and Dr. John M. Tucker, eminent oak systematist at UC Davis, both began their careers as undergraduate researchers at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Dr. Reid Moran, who studied the genus Dudleya and later the flora of Baja California, also began his career at the Garden.

During the 1960s, Garden research expanded to include formalized plant exploration of the Channel Islands by Jim Blakely, analysis of past climates in the tree ring lab of Harold Gladwin, and cytogenetic studies of brome grasses by Marta Walters. In 1967, then Director Dr. Ralph Philbrick convened the first symposium on the biology of the California Islands, and prepared a proceedings publication; this started a tradition that is still going strong with the 10th California Islands Symposium in November 2020. Botanical exploration on the islands greatly expanded with the addition of Steve Junak as Herbarium Curator in 1976, and extensive research on island botany, rare plants, and vegetation has continued to this day.

With the addition of Dr. Dieter Wilken in 1993, the Garden’s botanical work expanded to include rare plant conservation on both the islands and mainland and in 1996, the Garden became a member of the national Center for Plant Conservation. In the early 1990s, Dr. Sherwin Carlquist joined the Garden as a Research Associate and has published prolifically on wood anatomy and island biology ever since. Dr. Carlquist was joined on many studies by Dr. Ed Schneider, Garden Director from 1992 to 2010. Charis Bratt added lichen expertise in the late 1990s and was joined by Dr. Shirley Tucker in 2003.

In 2012, the Garden's research and conservation efforts further expanded to include community ecology with the addition of Dr. Denise Knapp, Director of Conservation & Research, who focuses on plant-insect interactions and pollinator networks. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Matt Guilliams became Herbarium Curator and Tucker Plant Systematist, and established the Garden’s first molecular lab for taxonomic, evolutionary, and conservation genetic research. The Conservation and Research Department has grown rapidly since then, with the addition of Dr. Heather Schneider as the Garden’s first full-time Rare Plant Biologist in 2016, Dr. Kristen Hasenstab-Lehman as Conservation Geneticist in 2017, Dr. Rikke Naesborg as Tucker Lichenologist in 2019, and PhD Candidate Josephine Lesage as Applied Ecologist in late 2019.

This diverse team works to understand, protect, and restore California’s native plants, lichens, and habitats from the level of genes to ecosystems on the Central Coast, the Channel Islands, and throughout California.