In the garden

Nonprofit hopes to bring botanic education center to Oroville

From left: Permaculture designer Joan Bosque Swearingen, horticulturalist Kent Fowler and arborist Susan Sims visit a sycamore tree at the Oroville Cemetery, planted by Sims almost three years ago. Fowler and Sims are the co-founders of Oroville Botanic Gardens & Education Center.

From left: Permaculture designer Joan Bosque Swearingen, horticulturalist Kent Fowler and arborist Susan Sims visit a sycamore tree at the Oroville Cemetery, planted by Sims almost three years ago. Fowler and Sims are the co-founders of Oroville Botanic Gardens & Education Center.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

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The group’s next class is Sat., Feb. 17, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Butte County Farm Bureau (2590 Feather River Blvd.). Stay up to date on the Oroville Botanic Gardens at

When the century-old sycamore trees that lined the fence at the Oroville Cemetery were chopped down by PG&E three years ago, the roots of a new project began to grow.

Arborist Susan Sims salvaged seed balls from the ancient sycamores, nurtured them and planted 100 saplings across Oroville.

Friday (Jan. 19), Sims walked along the cemetery pathway with Kent Fowler, a horticulturist, and Joan Bosque Swearingen, a permaculture designer. Fowler and Sims met when they were advocating for the survival of the sycamores and elms at the cemetery, cut down for a PG&E safety project. They stopped once they reached one of the six sycamore trees Sims had planted at the site, its limbs bare in the winter sun, reaching for greater heights.

The trio spoke about their common goal: establishing the nonprofit Oroville Botanic Gardens & Education Center. They don’t have a site picked out yet, but they’ve started reaching out to potential partners and investors to drum up community support.

Sims has been in the business of tree health care since 1972, operating Sims Tree Health Specialists Inc. in Riverside with her husband, Gary, and caring for her own private 7-acre botanic garden. Now residing in Oroville, Sims envisions people traveling through Northern California, seeing signs for the city’s beautiful botanic gardens from the highway, and making a pit stop.

“Economically and educationally, we are underserved,” Fowler said. “To have a world-class venue … would be an economic boost and help put Oroville back on the map in a positive way.”

The group wants to “empower the locals with knowledge, job opportunities [and] education,” Fowler said. Other goals include protecting, enhancing and celebrating open space for the benefit of the environment.

The value of nature and open spaces is immeasurable, said Bosque Swearingen, especially now that smartphones and tablets are at everybody’s fingertips. “We need that green light, not that blue light.”

Oroville does have parks, but the educational component of the gardens is what makes this project special, Sims said.

“The purpose is to educate—not just a place to walk through and find beauty—but to educate through the gardens,” Sims said. “So many people here live in the midst of agriculture and timber, and yet they don’t understand it or really know about it. All of that needs to change.”

Oroville City Councilwoman Marlene Del Rosario said the gardens haven’t been formally discussed by the council yet, but several members have expressed interest. If the city were to aid the nonprofit, she added, it’d likely come in the form of donating or leasing city-owned land, the process of which would be vetted through public hearings.

The botanic gardens could bring tourists to the city—and in turn, generate revenue, she said.

“I think Oroville is the perfect place for a botanical garden,” Del Rosario said. “I think people would come from distances to go to various classes.”

She also sees potential for mentorship opportunities, given the fact that there are numerous naturalists in the area. The gardens could not only be a beautiful spot, but also a place to infuse young people with an interest in plant sciences, she said.

First things first: where to put it? The group is looking to secure 80 to 100 acres for the gardens. The design and plant species included will depend upon the location.

For example, if they settle on property that’s low in the valley, they’ll consider plants that are more cold-tolerant. A garden in the foothills would have more subtropical species. Either way, Sims said the garden will have displays of different plant families, native and foreign. It’ll be a great place for birders, as well, being a natural attraction for avian species.

Fowler and Bosque Swearingen said they are looking forward to the project’s inclusion of ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between plants and people.

One aspect that’s set in stone is that the gardens will include markers with descriptions of species, botanical names and origins.

“Even if you’re just a botany student or botany hobbyist, you can walk through and learn that, ‘Hey, this is interesting; all the pines have this similarity, and this batch of trees are from Australia, this batch is from China,’” Sims said.

The nonprofit wants to honor the history of Oroville and represent the natural resources used by its native tribes for food, clothing, spiritual uses and medicine. The gardens could also highlight the agricultural industries that have been around since the Gold Rush—citrus, olives, wheat, rice and lumber.

There are already a number of supporters and sponsors for the project, including the Butte County Farm Bureau, Native Sons of the Golden West, Butte County Historical Society, West Coast Arborists, Meier Olive Orchard and the Save Oroville Trees group.

Despite the lack of a home right now, classes are already underway. The nonprofit held its first one on Saturday (Jan. 20)—a seed and scion exchange at the Butte County Farm Bureau.

They have to start somewhere, Sims said. “We want to show our value to the community. So the best way we can show what we’re going to do is by starting to do it, even though we don’t have the gardens,” she said. “If you can imagine it and we can find a speaker, we will have it.”

Next month, it’s all about mushrooms—their biology, identification and culinary uses. Other upcoming topics could include cannabis gardens, fire safety, insects 101, birding and Butte County’s geology.