The Natural Environment before Contact
For many centuries before the arrival of Euro-Americans in the mid-1800s, the Chico area maintained a rich variety of flora and fauna. In this state, oak woodland-savanna and riparian forests characterized the region. Tall grasslands provided food and cover for small fur-bearers, birds, and reptiles. Large expanses of marshes, riverlands, and floodplains gave refuge to thousands of migrating waterfowl and provided nesting sites for many birds. Large oaks punctuated the landscape, providing food and shelter for larger mammals like elk, pronghorns, and deer. The mild climate in the valley made it an ideal wintering ground for many higher altitude species.
Upon seeing the Chico area for the first time in 1843, John Bidwell provided the following description of the land:
“Hastening on up the valley we struck the trail of the Oregon company on what is now known as Chico Creek, Rancho Chico, and to me one of the loveliest of places. The plains were covered with scattered groves of spreading oaks; there were wild grasses and clover, two, three and four feet high, and most luxuriant. The fertility of the soil was beyond question, and the waters of Chico Creek were clear, cold, and sparkling; the mountains were lovely and flower-covered, a beautiful scene.”
The local Native American groups also played an important role in this environment. Indian villagers hunted local fauna, relied on native plants, and intentionally affected the local environment for their benefit. In all, the local Native Americans acted as a relatively stable and vital part of the local ecosystem.
The Natural Environment after the Arrival of Euro Americans
The local landscape irreparably changed following the arrival of Euro-Americans in the 1840s and the subsequent discovery of rich agricultural lands and gold-bearing streams. Since that time, an extensive agricultural system has almost entirely replaced the Sacramento Valley’s native ecosystems, including those of Chico and the surrounding area. Therefore, Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park can be viewed as an example of an artificial landscape which has, for the most part, supplanted the original.
The Vina Loam soil in concert with the Mediterranean climate and immediate access to water make the area extremely suitable for agricultural purposes. John Bidwell identified himself first and foremost as a farmer, therefore, the flora during the Bidwells’ occupation of the grounds consisted principally of exotic plants, both agricultural and ornamental. Beginning with the establishment of Rancho Chico in 1849, John Bidwell began introducing new agricultural crops to the region.
Wheat quickly became the dominant staple grown throughout the valley and remained so until the turn of the century. However, in contrast to the majority of farms in California, Bidwell made diversification of agriculture a primary feature of Rancho Chico. Among the many crops grown on the ranch, Bidwell introduced new and experimental species such as the Casaba Melon and Egyptian Corn, and also pioneered later staples of California agriculture, including almonds and walnuts. In total, Bidwell grew hundreds of different types of crops, and for nearly six decades Rancho Chico remained one of the most important agricultural operations in California.
Both the Bidwells also heavily involved themselves in ornamental planting, and the grounds and gardens surrounding Bidwell Mansion reflected their love of nature and their particular environmental philosophy. The Bidwells associated with a unique and particular form of conservation referred to as “environmental reform” or “environmental renovation.” While they believed that nature had intrinsic value and should be protected, they thought human influence could and should improve nature. The Bidwells, and many others of their time, “dreamed of transforming California’s wheat fields and rangelands into a lush, man-made Garden of Eden that would be both profitable and beautiful. This they proposed to accomplish through their enthusiastic promotion of irrigation, horticulture, and aggressive afforestation. Consequently the liberal planting of exotic eucalyptus and decorative trees, shrubs, and flowers became almost as important to [the Bidwells] as the nurturing of his many commercial crops.” A foreign observer described the ranch by saying:
“…not even the all-powerful American dollar would be able to bring about the destruction of a favorite oak, an avenue, or a bit of charming scenery. Not only have the natural beauties of the country been preserved, but heaps of gold derived from its productiveness have been expended upon developing and increasing the pleasing appearance of the estate. The property of 25,000 acres is like a group of delightful parks, and one drives for hours in every direction along charming avenues… without ever losing the sense of rural beauty.”
Together, the Bidwells oversaw the planting of an extensive garden surrounding the mansion, which included hydrangea, verbena, yellow jasmine, lily, rose, as well as numerous other native and introduced plant species. They planted specimen trees from around the world throughout the grounds, some of which survive up to the present day. Over the course of the Bidwells’ lifetime, ornamental plantings replaced most of the original native landscape and created a legacy that permeates throughout the park and the city of Chico today.
The local fauna also underwent significant change following the establishment of Rancho Chico. Increased hunting and loss of habitat led to a significant reduction in local animal populations and their relative replacement by non-native species. As part of his agricultural endeavors, Bidwell introduced cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs onto the grounds. Some native species did remain in the area, such as salmon and other fish, birds, rabbits, and squirrels. Interestingly, several sources confirm the existence of a fenced-in park to the mansion’s rear that contained tame deer.
The Park Today
Following the death of John Bidwell, the grounds surrounding the Bidwell Mansion continued the transition from their original state, to agricultural utilization, and eventually to ornamental and residential use. The expansion of the Chico urban area enveloped Rancho Chico and now only scattered remnants remain. Today, California State Parks maintains the Bidwell Mansion grounds as an urban park. Most of the land is vegetated with specimen trees, including several historic trees dating back to the Bidwells’ time. These include the Ginkgo biloba, southern magnolia, tulip tree, and monkey puzzle tree, which are favorites of guests and staff alike. Several trees have come down since the establishment of Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, either from natural causes or intentionally under California State Parks’ direction. New trees have been planted to replace those that have fallen or been removed in order to restore the grounds to its historic state.
Shrubs, plants, and trees have also been planted around the mansion in order to replicate the ornamental nature maintained around the home during the Bidwells’ lifetime. Certain aspects, such as the hydrangeas planted around the house, are based on historical sources, while other features, like a rose garden on the south side of the home, are not historic but maintained in the spirit of the Bidwells.
The southern boundary of the unit includes the banks of Big Chico Creek. The creek continues to flow year- round and although this area has gone through extensive ecological changes, some native plants still exist in a narrow riparian zone near the creek. Native and naturalized alien plant species in this zone include oak, alder, cottonwood, maple, willow, sycamore, dogwood, and black walnut. California Black Walnut (Juglans hindsii) is included in the California Native Plant Society’s Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants
The urban setting in which Bidwell Mansion lies limits wildlife to those species capable of living in close association with civilization; squirrels are the most commonly seen mammal. The riparian vegetation along Big Chico Creek provides an important wildlife habitat, sheltering gray foxes, raccoons, feral cats, shrews, mice, moles, and rats occurring in this zone. Animal life that may be found in the creek includes crayfish, smallmouth bass, catfish, carp, steelhead, and salmon. A variety of birds occur in the unit including woodpeckers, robins, starlings, house sparrows, scrub jays, hawks, owls, and crows.
The natural world remains an important feature of Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park. Today, the park’s natural features act as links to the past, sharing their stories with a modern public. The ornamental plantings, serene creek, and playful wildlife all help to tell the story of a landscape that has undergone an amazing change over the past 150 years. Although the original native setting has been almost entirely replaced, the trees, shrubs, gardens, and wildlife that currently make up the unit testify to the major changes that have shaped the landscape over time. These features, and the stories that tie them together, create a foundation for interpretation at the park. They provide an opportunity for the public to marvel, reflect, be inspired, and forge emotional and intellectual connections between the past and the present landscape.