Leaning Pine Arboretum at Cal Poly has existed for more than 50 years and covers five acres of rocky hillside on the Cal Poly campus.
Moving this public garden to a flattish location alongside railroad tracks and replacing it with housing is proposed on two out of three university Master Plan options — a move that has angered and frustrated many.
“What idiot thinks you can move 50 years of growth? All the beauty of the arboretum will be lost,” said Cal Poly horticulture professor Virginia Walter.
“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” she added. “Leave the arboretum there where it will be impossible to maintain, or destroy it. With no adjacent labs, it will be an orphan, surrounded by horses and residential areas.”
Linda Dalton, interim university planning officer, said recently that no decision on the arboretum’s future has been made: “We really care what people’s thoughts are. We are completely open at this point as to whether or not we would move the arboretum and are looking at feedback as to whether it would stay or be moved.”
An open-air classroom
Leaning Pine Arboretum is an open-air classroom where horticulture, botany, and biology students learn about plant taxonomy and nomenclature and how to make mistakes and recover from them.
Early donors included the Lane family of Sunset Magazine fame. Professor emeritus Tom Eltzroth was developer and director of the arboretum for many years and also taught nursery practice and plant propagation.
Since its establishment, the arboretum has received international praise and a wide range of visitors, from members of the Pacific Horticulture Society to Bishop Peak Elementary School students in San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly students, faculty and county residents stroll and relax in the shade of its 50-year-old oak trees.
Years ago a large pine tree was moved into the arboretum. The pine immediately began to lean, giving the arboretum its name.
Thanks in part to Cal Poly ornamental horticulture professor emeritus Woody Frey, the arboretum was a leader decades ago in encouraging the use of drought-tolerant plants and California natives in place of vast lawns.
It’s divided into five distinct Mediterranean climate zones: California, Chile, Australia, South Africa, and of course, the Mediterranean.
A classic Italianate garden near the horticulture facility greets visitors with an abundance of color. Four raised flower beds bring plants into closer view. Pink and white foxglove, yellow and blue pansies, purple bearded iris, and pink and red canna lilies provide an exuberant welcome.
A fountain that looks as though it came from ancient Rome pulls visitors into the garden with its cooling sound. Teak benches on either side face out toward large olive trees and the flower beds.
Another fountain a few steps up the hill has three round tiers. Those looking for unexpected joy will find it easily while watching a hummingbird bathe in the top tier.
A collection of palms are a striking counterpoint to the curving beds of succulents skirting the trees. Terra cotta pots filled with aloe and agave specimens add interest. A bench inside the border of the palm and aloe garden highlights the oasis factor of the arboretum. A large grassy space draws classes, lunch dates, bunnies and quail.
Pre-history is well represented by a group of cy cads and a large dawn redwood.
The California Collection contains coast redwoods, coast live oaks, manzanitas and ceanothus underplanted with native coral bells, juncus and currant bushes. Through this area the gardens take on a more naturalistic tone.
Australian and New Zealander plants are right at home in California. Their exotic, sometimes alien-like leaves and flowers are showcased next to the equally exotic South African garden. These specimens of the Proteaceae family appear as though they came from another planet.
All of the major landscaping companies recruit Cal Poly students and provide internships. For example, ValleyCrest recruits at its open barbecue in Leaning Tree Arboretum.