The Wilbur D. May Arboretum in Rancho San Rafael Regional Park on Monday, Sept. 10. Many Reno locals enjoy quiet strolls through the preservation areas, but are unaware of their roles in protecting plant life. The arboretum pictured here was established in honor of the late Wilbur D. May, who enjoyed wildlife and dedicated much of his life to travel.

While many people revel in the luxury of arboretums and botanical gardens, they’re often unaware of the significance behind them. So what exactly are arboretums and botanical gardens, and what purpose do they serve beside providing beautiful scenery?

Botanical gardens, in essence, are areas that are dedicated to protecting and preserving plant life of various species. Their purpose is to promote the growth of plants and act as an area of study for botanists. In fact, the late American historian and author Edward P. Alexander once described botanical gardens as “special museums in the natural history field with collections of living, rather than inanimate, specimens […] increasingly they focus on those species deemed to be at risk of extinction.” In relation to botanical gardens, arboretums are preservation areas that consist of only trees.

Not only do these gardens promote plant growth and study, but they also help us connect more with wildlife. As we become more and more invested in globalizing technology, we tend to lose touch with the natural world right in our own backyards. Arboretums and botanical gardens allow us to close that gap by providing a wide range of flora not only from our own native location, but from all around the world. In this way, we can feel like we’re exploring the globe just by taking a stroll through the park.

This is certainly the case for the Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Garden, located right at the edge of the Rancho San Rafael Regional Park a few blocks away from campus. Established in 1983, the area was created in honor of the late adventurer and philanthropist Wilbur D. May. Over the past 35 years, the garden has grown from just three acres to 23 acres, and includes over 4,000 different plants. Not only that, but there are nearly 30 smaller gardens and groves available for exploration within the preservation area. Each is home to a variety of either native or foreign species of plants, and in some cases even both. Within the arboretum alone, there are about 186 genuses and 260 species total.

Despite the continued growth of the Wilbur D. May nature areas, not all is well within the world of preservation. Bill Carlos, the arboretum’s horticulturalist, estimates that by the end of the year, approximately 100,000 plant species are expected to go extinct due to environmental deterioration. In some ways, the Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Garden act as a refuge for plants that are in danger of going extinct. For this reason, it’s vital to stress the importance of environmental friendliness and respect when visiting the park, meaning no littering or walking in areas that are sensitive to extinction.

Carlos also expresses several ways in which he believes the arboretum and botanical garden can be improved in terms of learning experience. The main improvement he wishes to make is the quality of signs throughout the preservation areas. Some groves and gardens have little to no indication of what kinds of plant life live there, whereas others have very detailed signs describing each kind of plant. In addition, some sections have been established in the name of a certain individual for a special reason. It would be better for the overall experience of visitors if signs could indicate the person the grove or garden is named after, and why the contribution was made in their honor.

The Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Garden is just one of many preservation areas on the west coast, that serve as wonderful examples as to why preservation is so important. As they continue to grow and prosper, it’s vital that Reno locals take caution when visiting and not impose on any of the areas that harbor endangered species. At the same time, experiencing the preservation area is just one way to get closer to nature and witness plant life from all around the world.

Carla Suggs can be reached for inquiry at csuggs@nevadasagebrush.unr.edu, or on Twitter @c_swayzy.