graduate students

Christina Varnava

Master's Student


I’m from Ventura, California. As a child I always loved nature and using field guides, but I didn’t realize botany was meant for me until I worked in a tropical plant nursery. I kept pestering my boss with all these questions about the plants, and eventually he told me to take a plant biology class at the community college. After that I realized botany was exactly what I needed to be studying! 

I came to LA County to go to school, and I graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, with a concentration in botany from California Polytechnic University, Pomona. At Cal Poly, I had the opportunity to work on several research projects focused on plant anatomy, restoration ecology, as well as a floristic survey. I learned about the research program here at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden while working in the Herbarium, began the master’s program in 2018.


I am working on a flora to study and document the plants of the upper watershed of Sespe Creek, located within the Los Padres National Forest in northern Ventura County, CA. Sespe Creek is 61 miles long and designated as a Wild and Scenic River. Remarkably for southern California it was never diverted or dammed, and supports riparian vegetation as well as coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and intact native grasslands. Ventura County is a biodiversity hotspot within California, and there is tremendous botanical diversity to be found in the watershed. This is an especially important task considering 2017 the Thomas Fire burned parts of the watershed, leaving many places that had drastic landscape changes from fire. There are many historical collections from the area, but most of those follow Highway 33 or are decades old, leaving many places in need of thorough surveying. 

The goal of my study is to fill in our knowledge about areas that haven’t been collected, as well as revisit areas with significantly historical collections, such as Cherry Creek which was last documented in the 1960s. I'm very interested in seeing what kinds of changes I might find. I am also interested in areas that were affected by the Thomas Fire, documenting fire followers which are plants that “follow” or appear after fire, as well as any potential opportunistic weeds. I am also interested in applying habitat modeling to the area to search for new occurrences for rare plant species.

A note on floras: Floristic studies, or floras are sometimes seen as old-fashioned types of studies, but they are more relevant today than ever. Voucher specimens collected for floristic studies are meant to last indefinitely, which is longer than a website or digital photo can promise. These specimens serve as permanent records of plant life which can be independently verified and the physical specimen can provide DNA, seeds, pollen, or even soil to help support research. Herbarium specimens are used for many types of studies including phenology, plant evolution, and phylogenetics, as well as regional plant checklists.

Additional Information


In prep - A vascular flora of the upper Sespe Creek watershed, Ventura County, CA

In prep - Development and origin of nodal spines in the genus Ribes (Grossulariaceae) 


Poster - Southern California Botanists 2019

Talk - California Botanical Society 2019

Grants and Awards

Paul Silva Research Grant 2019, California Botanical Society

Jean Platt Fund Award 2019, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Susan G. Hobbes Grant for Field Research 2018, Southern California Botanists

Instagram: cvbotany


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