Reprinted, with the author’s permission, from the February 2004 edition of The Pipevine, the newsletter of the Mt. Lassen chapter of the California Native Plant Society
by Wes Dempsey
A marvelous surprise awaits the tree lover who wanders thru the 29 acres surrounding the Nature Center on East 8th Street. General John Bidwell donated this part of his ranch to the newly created State Board of Forestry in 1888 for use as a woody plant nursery and demonstration plantation. By 1890 there were 30,000 seedlings in the nursery and 15,000 scattered in 7 acres of plots surrounding it. Cuttings and young plants were distributed far and wide including species of willow, mulberry, linden, maple, oak, catalpa, pine, and eucalyptus collected from all parts of the world. In the older sections of Chico and surrounding towns, some of these and their offspring still grow and along the World of Trees Nature Trail, west of the nature center, 18 representative species are labeled.
By 1893, the legislature axed the funding (does this sound familiar?) and turned the station over to the University of California Department of Agriculture at Berkeley. They reported discovering the nursery buried in johnson grass, the plantings with only about 2000 decent trees, no registry or maps, and gophers and squirrels feasting throughout. The University turned to Bidwell and his ranch superintendent, Colonel Royce, for help and together they gradually salvaged and improved the plantings.
By 1894 a beautiful plantation of 112 Sequoia gigantea, located about where the nature center now stands, had grown to 17 feet in height (these had been planted in 1890). You won’t find any of these left, however, for they gradually died between 1930 and 1950: probably succumbing to the effects of a week of 10-degree weather in 1932. In 1895 the so-called “Cedar” Grove tract was set out (they are actually Italian cypress!) with mixed hardwoods interspersed with the cypresses; today only the latter remain. In 1896, to the west of this grove, a large block of Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) went in. These were thriving trees about 60-feet tall and 8-inches in diameter when I saw them in 1954. Unfortunately, bark beetles decimated them in a period of about 10 years and now only a couple remain along South Park Drive. This area now has a new forest of valley and English oaks, hawthorn, cherry plum, bay laurel, and many other waifs mostly planted by scrub jays and squirrels. Along the south end here, the nature trail, re-established by Janeece Webb, the Park Department, and Altacal Audubon winds its way; bordering it are large western catalpa trees tracing back to about 1890.
Planting continued with the cork oak grove in 1904 and, to the east, several rows of conifers (ponderosa, aleppo, and Monterey pines) between 1917 and 1921. The cork oaks actually have had cork harvested periodically; the scars from the stripping in 1940 and even more recently are clearly visible today.
In 1949, the USFS Genetics Station at Placerville put in a historically and scientifically important test plot of several Sierra and Rocky Mountain species of pines and their hybrids. These are located to the west of the open field used for Shakespeare in the Park. These trees clearly show that certain hybrids (for example Coulter pine crossed to Jeffrey pine) have very rapid growth and great vigor compared to the parents . When similar strains were grown in different areas of the country and at different elevations it became clear that seeds must be collected from trees within 100 miles and within 1000 feet elevation of where they were to be planted or the resulting crop would fail to grow normally.
In 1921, the University turned the 29 acres over to the state. The City of Chico, in turn. purchased the property (a small group of public-spirited citizens contributed $100 each to provide the funds, I understand) and made it part of Bidwell Park. It was never part of the 1905 gift by Annie Bidwell, therefore.
Until the 1970’s, the old barn, still there today [the barn was destroyed by fire in 2006], and a small cottage to the west served as the park headquarters and maintenance facility. In 1976, the Bidwell Wildlife Rehabilitation Center was headquartered here and then the site was taken over in 1982 by Altacal Audubon Society as a nature center.
In 1918, a map was made of all the existing plantings by J. Woodbridge Metcalf, the legendary UC Forestry School Extension specialist. He updated this in 1959 and gave a number of us copies along with a brief history of the plantings during his tenure. I remember meeting him at the dedication of the site as a California Registered Historical Landmark. The stone monument with its brass plaque can be seen at the east end of the Cedar Grove picnic area.
The Metcalf map of the plantings; PDF version (1.4 MB).