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The world in one 55-acre garden

Learn what plants can teach us

Spring has sprung and the outdoors are calling to us — even in foggy San Francisco. If you’re looking for a great place to enjoy the warmer weather, we’ve got a suggestion — check out the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. Its 55-acre garden is incredibly beautiful, and gives visitors a chance to see and enjoy plants from all over the world.

We’ve also got the perfect guide: Tania Pollak, who teaches ecology at San Francisco State University and often takes groups of students to the Botanical Garden to study its 8,000-plus plants. Pollak also teaches at San Francisco’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), which offers offers classes and activities for people who are 50 and older. On May 23, Pollak will take a group of OLLI members through the garden to discuss what its plants can teach us. Her class is likely to fill up, but if it does OLLI will schedule another. 

“The garden is one of my favorite places because it’s not just beautiful but it’s also a great place to encourage people to explore nature and learn about different environments,” she said. “The garden has habitats representative of many places around the globe, and lets visitors explore different types of plant and animal communities.”

Pollak did her undergraduate work in environmental science at UC Berkeley, then went to graduate school at San Francisco State, studying ecology. While at State, she spent a lot of time studying a creature you’ve probably never heard of — the San Francisco Forktail Damselfly, a rare and beautiful insect native to the city but now suffering from declining numbers thanks to environmental, development, and other pressures.  However, efforts are underway to help restore the species’ populations in San Francisco thanks to a partnership between the Presidio Trust, the San Francisco Zoo, the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, and San Francisco State University.

As much as Pollak loved studying the damselfly, her real passion has always been teaching and working with students of all ages — OLLI members as well as undergrads and youth — because teaching gives her a chance to explain how a big chunk of the natural world works, and inspire people to protect and steward the environment.

“I like to take my students to the S.F. Botanical Garden because it is a great place to teach some really important lessons,” she explained. “It’s divided into zones with plants from just about everywhere — the Andes, the Mediterranean, Asia, Southeast Asia, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Mesoamerica, Chile, and, of course, California.” Each environment has a story to tell about how plants adapt to their environments and meet varied challenges.

“I ask my students to start by looking at the role soil, rain, sun, and other factors have on these plants, and then try to answer to questions like these: How do they adapt to their surroundings? What are their strategies for surviving cold, frost, drought, floods, and other environmental challenges? How do some plants live on or in water while others live near rivers, or in deserts, or at high elevations?”  

They also discuss reproduction. Why do the plants in this garden adopt such different reproduction strategies? Why do some reproduce sexually while others reproduce asexually? Why do some rely on wind to spread their seeds while others use bees or other insects, and some just drop their seeds to the ground? Why do some reproduce by flowers while others use spores? How do plants defend themselves from herbivores? “So much is about the evolution and adaptions of plants and how they shape and are shaped by their environment” Pollak noted.  

“We can find examples to answer these questions in the garden,” said Pollak. “We may also discuss a crucial question: will these plants and other species survive or adapt quickly enough to climate change, and how do we act to help to ensure they can.”

Great as it is for teaching, the San Francisco Botanical Garden also offers visitors a wide range of activities that include meditation, poetry, dance and drawing classes, painting, gardening, a library, and lots of volunteer opportunities. A full list of garden activities and classes is available here: https://sfbg.secure.force.com/ticket/#/

For more information on San Francisco’s Osher Lifeline Learning Institute and its activities for people who are 50 and older, including the class taught by Tania Pollak, visit https://olli.sfsu.edu.

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