Meet the New Director of the UCR Botanic Gardens

Professor Jodie Holt will use the gardens as a tool for science outreach

Jodie Holt, now the director of the UCR Botanic Gardens, poses with Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox. photo by Michael Lewis

Professor Emeritus Jodie Holt, the same botanist who advised James Cameron on the other-worldly plants featured in the science fiction movie “Avatar,” now has a 40-acre playground to use as a tool for science outreach: The UCR Botanic Gardens.

Holt, the new director of the gardens, said she has already added three more full time employees; worked with TAPS to create a system for free parking for volunteer workers; is upgrading the bathrooms; and is guiding a student worker who is connecting the gardens to social media. Plus, there are two new gardens in development: a year-round color garden and an ethnobotany garden to include plants used by indigenous peoples.

The UCR Botanic Gardens occupies 40 acres of terrain along the eastern boundary of the campus, in the foothills of the Box Springs Mountains. Photo by Kris Lovekin

The UCR Botanic Gardens occupies 40 acres of terrain along the eastern boundary of the campus, in the foothills of the Box Springs Mountains.
Photo by Kris Lovekin

She said she will not neglect the classics, such as the fall and spring plant sales, which are two of the most popular events offered in the gardens. Other annual events include Primavera in the Garden; an arts and crafts day; bird watching events; and Master Gardener demonstrations.

A UCR faculty member since 1982, Holt had the most high-profile adventure of her academic career after picking up her office phone in 2007.

“The producer Jon Landau asked me if I would consult on the botany of a movie in production,” she recalled. That movie, “Avatar,” was a 3D sensation, and to this day is the highest-grossing film ever.

Holt helped the filmmakers think through how plants look, act, and communicate through their cells; She advised Sigourney Weaver on what botanists might wear and how they might act in the field; and she suggested a line of dialogue that made it into the film. One character says to another: “We call it signal transduction.” Holt said she knew fellow botanists would instantly recognize the term. “I was able to get a scientific concept into a science fiction movie, and I am proud of that.”

Some of the plants from the James Cameron movie "Avatar"

Some of the plants from the James Cameron movie “Avatar”

The UCR Botanic Gardens, founded in 1963, will be a smaller — but no less satisfying — way to reach out to the community and encourage an interest in the amazing aspects of plants.

She credits her predecessor, Giles Waines, with consistent and effective fundraising efforts during his 30 years overseeing the gardens. He built up the financial resources that can now be used to maintain the trails, create new signs and maps, and launch new programming.

“He really did what he intended to do,” Holt said. “He laid the foundation for a viable financial future.”

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