The Gateway Science Museum and Its Ecoregions-Based Gardens in Chico


A little more than one year ago, I had the privilege of writing about the ground-breaking for an exciting new regional resource: The Gateway Science Museum on the campus of CSU, Chico aimed at helping all of us Explore the Natural History of Northern California. The Gateway Science Museum is a partnership between community members and the College of Natural Sciences at CSU, Chico, and its mission is a lofty one: “to create a life-long learning environment that enables people to explore, interpret, and celebrate the magnificent natural heritage of our region through science, research, and education. We strive to combine the resources of California State University, Chico and the entire region to provide an educational and culturally enriching site where families, school classes, clubs, and friends can gather for a variety of activities: 1.) To learn about the natural history of Northern California, past and present; 2.) To compare Northern California’s habitats with others in North America and the world; 3.) To explore interactions between our region’s environment and the people who live here, including the original Native Americans; 4.) To participate in the exhilaration of “doing science”; 5.) To learn about our region’s critical habitats and then visit the habitats on field trips.” Photo: Front entrance of the new Gateway Science Museum on the campus of CSU, Chico.

As I wrote close to a year ago: “Hurray for that. All of that.” We as a region are in need all of these things. Photo: Spent flowers on a native hibiscus (Hibiscus californica) in the Delta exhibit.

One year and one summer since that groundbreaking, the Gateway Science Museum’s facilities are very close to complete. The building and the landscapes should be final within weeks, public school field trips and other public programming, including “Saturdays at the Gateway” open houses and tours will begin this fall and the Grand Opening for daily ticketed visitors is set for early 2010.

This past week I had the pleasure of walking the new grounds with Acting Director Rachel Teasdale and Field Director of the CSU, Chico Arboretum (and native plant guru), Wes Dempsey. The landscapes are now planted and settling in – and they are looking great. I am intrigued by the Entry Discovery Plaza full of plants that represent paleo-flora of our region, and I understand the idea behind the Buffer Zones with plants representing those that have been introduced to our region through settlement, agriculture gardening, etc. (and I was very relieved to see that a ground cover used in the Buffer Zones is Asian star Jasmine (Trachelospermum asiasticum), not the dreaded periwinkle (Vinca minor). However, it is the native plant-based regions such as the Big Chico Creek, Delta and Lower Montane Forest plantings that I am most excited about – the California fuchsia is blooming happily, the native grasses are arching, the California poppy is already spreading its seed, native trees are set in their sentry positions and the drip lines are set to nurture them all along. These gardens are small right now, but they are conceptually interesting and complex and full of the potential and hope of all new gardens. Photo: Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) in the Delta exhibit.

Like all seedlings, these landscapes will have to be hardened off. After that, they will branch and grow and send out deep strong roots. With sunlight, rain, nourishing soil, and gardeners tending, feeding and pruning – in time they will transform from young and spare into full-grown beauties. Plans are in the works in the coming year for garden programs led by docent volunteers and educational opportunities involving the gardens. So check them out. Take notes, give feedback. Photo: Aloe (Aloe striata) in the Discovery Plaza exhibit.

The Gateway Science Museum display gardens will work in concert with the institution they complement. I think they will be worth caring about, worth calling our own.

The remainder of this article is from the profile on the history of the idea of the museum and the concept behind the landscapes, which I wrote in July of 2008.

In the early 1990s, Dr. Raymond Barnett, a Professor of Vertebrate Biology at California State University Chico since the late 1970s, began mulling over the fact that Northern California needed an institution dedicated to celebrating and protecting the region’s rich natural history. Simultaneously, as a professor and a father, he was dismayed with failing science education curriculums in many of Northern California’s school systems. He decided to work toward the idea of starting a natural history museum in order to address both issues. He began by using his own personal collection of rocks and bones (found on hikes, biking, and camping trips around the region) in what he calls very “simple” hallway displays in CSU Chico’s Science building. Photo: Acting Director Dr. Rachel Teasdale and Professor Emeritus Dr. Wes Dempsey inspecting the Gateway Science Museum’s new plantings.

In a sort of “build-it-and-they-will-come” chain of events, his displays caught the eyes and interest of many other like-minded people – including students, alumni, college faculty and staff as well as citizens of the larger region. “From the beginning, this has been a really collaborative town/gown endeavor,” Barnett told me. “This seed of an idea resonated deeply with a community that was ready for celebrating its natural history and improving science education at all levels.”

Early supporters—such as Dr. Marcia Moore and Judy Sitton—came forward and by 1996 a board of directors had formed and Barnett was made the director of the new museum. From the beginning the board of directors has included representatives from throughout Northern California including from the Bay area and the coast, to Oroville to the Oregon Border. In 2002, the museum endeavor won huge financial support from Proposition 40, which was just what the group needed to make the dream of a state-of-the-art building and grounds a reality. CSU Chico donated a piece of land for the new facility that is adjacent to the historic Bidwell Mansion in downtown Chico. The University and The Gateway Science Museum (then known as the Northern California Natural History Museum) staff and board sent out a request for designs for the building and grounds. After much review and deliberation the designs submitted by the design and build team of Otto Construction and ANOVA Architects ( out of Placerville were chosen. Photo: Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) in the Discovery Plaza.

Barnett served as director of the fledgling museum from 1996 until 2003, when he moved to serving as an enthusiastic member of the board. At the same time, Greg Liggett, former Assistant Director and current Adjunct Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology from the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays Kansas, was brought on as the Executive Director. In early 2009, Liggett went on extended medical leave and former board Member Dr. Rachel Teasdale currently serves as Acting Director.


The Otto-ANOVA’s winning designs for the museum and its grounds feature areas representing signature “ecoregions” (defined by the World Wildlife Fund as a distinct collection of ecosystems unique to a particular area) of Northern California, and both the building and landscape are built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards set by the US Green Building Council. While walking with me around the site last year, Barnett explained that “the landscape design and the specific plants used will be integral to the educational experience and exhibitions of the museum as a whole. They will be every bit as important and interactive as any permanent or traveling exhibition on display inside the museum.” The landscape is specifically designed to represent four big ecoregions of Northern California. The museum’s courtyard entrance is called the Discovery Plaza and juts out diagonally to the south east of the building. The plant’s here represent those from the Jurrassic period of plant life in our area. “No true plants from the Jurassic period are still living in Northern California,” explained Barnett, “and so we have stand-ins such as Ginkgo trees (Ginkgo biloba), ferns and palms.” Photo: A sample of the landscape plans for the Gateway Science Museum.

The south side of the building is planted to represent the Sacramento River Delta, and will include sycamore (Platanus racemosa), cattails (Typha latifolia), tidytips (Layia platyglossa), lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia) and Pacific Coast iris to name a few. The east side of the building is landscaped to represent the Big Chico Creek Riparian corridor and will include California buckeye (Aesculus californica), western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), valley oak and canyon live oak (Quercus lobata and Quercus chrysolepis), mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), california poppy (Escholozia californica) and purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra), to name a few. The north side of the building, which will be cooler due to the shade of the building, will represent the lower montane mixed forest, from about 3,000 – 6,000 feet in elevation. Plants here will include incense cedar (Calcedrus decurrens), California black oak (Quercus kelloggii), spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis), creeping ceanothus (Ceanothus prostratus), Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), golden-eye grass (Sisyrinchium californicum), and California fuschia (Zauschnera californica). Finally the south side of the building is bordered by parking for the mueum and will represent the buffer zones of our Northern California plant world where native habitats have been altered and changed for the purposes of people who have settled here – from early Native Americans to early European settlers to those of us who live and garden or grow crops here today. Plants in the buffer zone include Aganpanthus, fortnight lily (Dietes bicolor), Asian star jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum) and pink Indian Hawthorne (Rhaphiolepsis indica). Photo: Red flowers of the California spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis) specimens of which are in the Lower Montane Mixed Forest exhibit.

Docents will be trained in the purpose and plant materials of the new display gardens and interpretative signs and plants markers will provide identification and historical information, so visitors can expect to learn a great deal about the plant-life and eco-systems of Northern California when visiting. In the past few years, the Museum’s initial educational outreaches such as the Museum Without Walls (MWOW) lecture series, has regularly included plant related programming. According to both Ray Barnett and Greg Liggett, once the museum is up and running, plant and botanical programming will continue to be developed and will address the past/present and future of plants in native/wild habitats and plants in domestic and agricultural settings. Photo: The distinctive leaves of flannel bush (Fremontodendron) in the Lower Montane Mixed Forest exhibit.

The timeline for the new gardens goes hand in hand with the timeline for the building itself. At this point the hope is that the planting areas will be defined and the irrigation (primarily drip) will be in place by the fall of 2009 so that the most of the plants can be put in and allowed to establish through the winter and be ready to go for the Grand Opening sometime after that. Photo: Seed head on a native hibiscus (Hibiscus californica) in the Delta exhibit.

A big hurray for that too, because in my opinion it is difficult to have too many display gardens. And with thoughtful, knowledgeable and interesting people such as Teasdale, Dempsey, Barnett and Liggett involved in this project, I feel confident we are in for some great things from this new resource. When John and Annie Bidwell established Chico, they also set a precedent over their long lifetimes that human landscapes (in the form of vast agricultural advances) and native landscapes (in the form of the many acres of natural habitat preserved in Bidwell Park) can and should coexist and enrich our lives equally. I can’t help but think they would be happy to see this newest endeavor in the region they loved. Ray Barnett, a transplant to the area just like John and Annie (Barnett came from North Carolina) has a natural curiosity about the world around him. He has traveled far and wide and studied subjects as varied as Chinese history and Chinese gardens as well as his own field of work. Like the Bidwells, he grew to love Northern California. Also like the Bidwells, he saw a need in our area and worked with others to fill that need to the benefit of us all – including us gardeners. Photo: The sweet pink-red flowers on the low spreading rose mallow (Sphaeralcea munroana).

For more information on the Gateway Science Museum and their ecoregions-based landscapes, or for how to be involved or donate to the museum, visit the website: (

For some excellent resources on Native Plant Gardens and Gardening in our region – take a look through some of these books. Further, the 2010 In a North State Garden Calendar features native plants for the North State Garden chosen by a panel of regional plant experts – the calendar is available by email ordering now and will be available in all good gardening shops around the 1st of October. All of my reading recommendations are available in stock (or by special order for the more expensive ones) at Lyon Books in Chico. You can order on-line and they are happy to ship. You can always try our excellent public libraries for these books as well: Photo: California Fuchsia (Zauschneria californica) blooming along the pathways in the Lower Montane Forest exhibit.

Gardening with a Wild Heart (University of California Press, 1999)

California Native Plants for the Garden (Cachuma Press, 2005)

Hardy Californians (University of California Press, 2006)

Designing California Native Gardens (University of California Press, 2007)

Native Treasures (University of California Press, 2006)


In the coming months, several outstanding classes and workshops on gardening with native plants are taking place in our region: Photo: California poppies.

September 17 – Redding: McConnell Arboretum & Gardens at Turtle Bay Turtle U 400: 7:00 PM Lecture, Visitor Center Theater: Environmental Gardening and the UC Davis Arboretum All-Star program Speaker: Ellen Zagory, Director of Horticulture at UC Davis Arboretum. More Info: Call 530-242-3108 or

September 19 – Redding: McConnell Arboretum & Gardens at Turtle Bay Gardening with California Natives. 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM Join Shasta College instructor Susan Libonati for a slideshow presentation of Garden Worthy Natives, which are compatible with our climate and also easy to grow. Includes live plant examples, take-home lists of appropriate species, and a short tour of the native plants displayed in the Gardens. Members $6, nonmembers $8, Turtle Bay volunteers $3 Meet at the Arboretum & Botanical Gardens Office at 1135 Arboretum Drive (Next to Greenhouse in Nursery) More Info: Call 530-242-3108 or

October 3 – Chico: Mt. Lassen Chapter Cal Native Plant Society WORKSHOP: Gardening with Drought Tolerant Natives! 10 am – 3 pm, Chico Creek Nature Center. Admission $20. Learn the what, why, when, where, and how of incorporating drought tolerant native plants into your garden. Featuring regional native plant experts, including landscape designers Paula Shapiro of Chico, John Whittlesey of Canyon Creek Nursery and Design in Oroville, Bernadette Balics of Ecological Landscape Design in Davis, and Jim Dempsey of Cal State Parks, speaking on ornamental native grasses. Pre-register by mailing a check to Mt. Lassen Chapter CNPS, P.O. Box 3212, Chico,Ca., 95927-3212. More Info: Paula Shapiro:, or call: 530-343-7440.

November 14 – Chico: Friends of the Chico State Herbarium 9 am – 5 pm. GENERAL INTEREST/TECHNICAL Workshop: Growing and Propagating Native Plants for the Garden with Germaine Boivin and John Whittlesey. Chico State Herbarium, Holt Hall Room 129. More Details coming soon. Please register in advance with the Gateway Science Museum office at (530) 898-3511 or

In a North State Garden is a radio- and web-based outreach program of the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State, based in Chico, CA. In a North State Garden celebrates the art, craft and science of home gardening in California’s North State region, and is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio KCHO/KFPR radio, Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.