Botanical Conservatory Endowment Fund Honors Legacy of Tim Metcalf

Botanical conservatory
The Botanical Conservatory serves as an interactive and multi-sensory museum that is home to a huge diversity of live specimens relied on for teaching and research. (Sasha Bakhter/UC Davis)

Botanical Conservatory Endowment Fund Honors Legacy of Tim Metcalf

Director Emeritus helped open the conservatory to the public

Tim Metcalf
Tim Metcalf, who joined the conservatory in 1971, spent nearly 40 years managing its collections and helped make it a visitor’s destination on the UC Davis campus.

Plants aren't passive. Though we step on grass, brush against branches and pick petals, plants aren't just immobile organisms. And no one knows this better than Tim Metcalf, the director emeritus of the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory.

"They have their own personality," said Metcalf, who was initially hired as a laboratory assistant at the conservatory back in 1971. "Plants do crazy things and they surprise you." 

Though Metcalf graduated from UC Davis with a B.S. in mathematics, he soon realized his calling wasn’t with the theoretical but with concrete, specifically with the soil beneath his feet. And with that, the organisms the soil gives life to.    

"Part of the reason I stayed with the position was when I woke up in the morning, I wanted to come to work," recalled Metcalf of those early years. "That's a tremendous gift."

Over the course of a roughly 40-year career, Metcalf and his team transformed a small plant collection into a 3,000 square-foot complex that houses over 5,000 plant species from 150 families across the globe. Each plant in the facility has its own climatic requirements. There's a tropical room, a cool room, desert rooms and a damp, temperate fern room. But this is just the beginning.

While the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory serves as a resource for students, professors, researchers and the public, including K-12 students, there's still so much more to be done with the space. That's why UC Davis launched the Tim Metcalf Botanical Conservatory Endowment, a fund established by alumni, friends and colleagues to honor Metcalf's legacy and his role in transforming the conservatory into what it is today.

Visitors to the conservatory
Today, the conservatory welcomes nearly 4,000 visitors annually. For both private groups, on-campus researchers and even local schools, the collections serve as a valuable resource for teaching and learning. (Sasha Bakhter/UC Davis)

During his tenure, Metcalf was responsible for managing the facility's research and teaching collections. But he didn’t stop there. He created the conservatory's internship program, which gives undergraduate students the opportunity to learn the basics of cultivation while conducting their own research projects. What's more, every student in the College of Biological Sciences, at some point in their undergraduate career, has the opportunity to pass through the conservatory, research topics with specific and often rare species of plants and then present their findings to their peers. 

"It's self-discovery and teaching, which are the two best ways that I know how to learn," said Metcalf.

"This is an exciting time," he added, noting that he envisions a new facility less bounded by financial constraints and physical space. "With support from donors, we will be able to create something that has more impact because the plants will be out of their pots. They will be able to grow closer to their natural potential. There would be finely tuned ventilation, humidity, light and temperature controls, all energy efficient and custom designed with everything laid out so the plants are more accessible to individuals and larger groups.”

According to the conservatory’s manager Ernesto Sandoval, previous philanthropic support has allowed the conservatory to expand its footprint on campus.

“Donations helped us establish the Ernest Gifford Cycad Garden on the south side of Storer Hall and the Joe and Emma Biological Orchard and Gardens near the conservatory, a popular outdoor diversity island in the middle of campus,” said Sandoval. “In the early years of our endowments, donations to these funds helped us hire some of our student employees and helped us buy equipment we otherwise could not afford that improved our efficiency.”

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