Tilden Regional Park: Botanical Garden – Berkeley CA


The Tilden Park Botanical Garden for California native plants was built by the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) with the aid of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1940-42.

The garden was the brainchild of Professor Howard McMinn of Mills College, in 1938.  He knew of an extensive collection of California native plants at the US Forest Service’s California Forest and Range Experiment Station in Berkeley, which had been assembled with the help of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) teams gathering seeds. Under Prof. McMinn’s urging, the Forest Service and EBRPD formed a cooperative agreement to create a new botanic garden in Tilden Park and a committee was formed of local conservations and botanists to select an appropriate site.

McMinn further induced James Roof, superintendent of the Forest Service nursery to split time to work with the park district. Roof began work on the new garden in January 1940, beginning with the layout which he designed, and he became the guiding spirit behind the garden for the next forty years.

Progress in preparing the site and plantings went quickly with the help of some 300 WPA workers, including Italian immigrant stone mason, in 1941-42.  WPA workers undoubtedly built the retaining walls and creek control elements that are the foundation of the garden: the high walls below the road and below the Visitor’s Center; the culvert/tunnel under the road for Wildcat Creek; walls/rip-rap along the bed of Wildcat Creek;  at least two of the three stone bridges over the creek; and additional walls, stairs and paths.  

It should be noted that Roof and park staff built the Visitor’s Center, old greenhouse and  new garden center, and they added stonework here and there, as well as maintaining the New Deal era walls and features.  So, no one is completely certain where the New Deal work ends and postwar work begins. Notably, an epochal flood in 1955 tore loose stone walls and revetments built by WPA crews; these had to be rebuilt by Roof and his skeleton crew and held tight in later floods.

The WPA crews also helped with planting early sections of the gardens: Redwood, Shasta and Island.  They even cleared the large Southern California and Desert section that once stretched southeast along South Park Drive, but which subsequently disappeared beneath overgrowth during the war and a fire just after the war. 

The Tilden Botanical Garden is noteworthy as the birthplace of the California Native Plant Society under James Roof.  


Source notes

Bacigalupi, Rimo, 1965. "The regional parks botanic garden in Tilden Park," California Horticultural Society Journal, XXVI/1, January, pp. 14-22.

Interview with Alan Kaplan, September 12, 2007 (by Gray Brechin)

Smith, Harvey. 2014. Berkeley and the New Deal. Charleston SC: Arcadia Books. 

Project originally submitted by Richard A Walker on March 10, 2019.
Additional contributions by Joan Greer.

We welcome contributions of additional information on any New Deal project site.


Location Info

Wildcat Canyon Road and South Park Drive
Berkeley, CA 94708

Coordinates: 37.8936, -122.242

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