Then they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em. Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”
From the song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, by Joni Mitchell
We made it; our botanical odyssey was fulfilled. Two weeks ago, we set out on a road trip to see as many botanical sights as we could cram into eight days of traveling.
We drove through the night to get to San Francisco and begin our journey. Who needs sleep? It would only get in the way of seeing more gardens, learning more plants and breathing in the sweet floral perfumes that would await us.
I enjoy plants, all plants, whether cultivated or in nature’s own natural landscapes. So I planned the trip to offer us a bit of both, cultivated plants and wild plants. I wouldn’t suggest this trip to most; it’s probably too exhausting for most, even those with a big interest in gardening. The driving, the walking though gardens, the hiking on irregular trails, the stopping at every interesting plant along a road or path, the camping at a different spot every night might sound romantic, but would get tiring pretty quickly for most people. Oh well, it worked for us.
Our travels took us to some of California’s premier botanical highlights. In this column I’ll recount some of the cultivated gardens that we visited around the state. I’ll leave the wild gardens for another column. In the San Francisco area, these cultivated gardens included the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden, The two and a half acre green roof of The California Academy of Sciences and the 133 year old San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers. We visited Flora Grubb Nursery, certainly the trendiest and most talked about garden center now in the San Francisco area. If you’re in the Bay for a weekend, you really should visit each of these gardens, if you haven’t already.
We invested a drizzly but magical morning and afternoon at the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden, doing our very best it seemed to locate all 13,000 plant species growing in this botanical paradise. For those who simply love plants, I believe this is the garden to see in California. It is not a tourist attraction and it’s not overdone with massive architecture or a huge gift shop; it’s just pure, glorious plants in all their natural splendor. The garden is meticulously maintained, the plants are healthy and well marked and the variety is astonishing.
Twenty minutes east of Berkeley we stopped at The Ruth Bancroft Garden. Sixty years ago Ruth Bancroft, now 102 years old, brought home a succulent and over the ensuing years became a horticultural pioneer. Her garden, now open to the public, stands as stunning example of low-water, Mediterranean climate gardening.
Further down the coast we toured the Arboretum at UC Santa Cruz. This garden, less than fifty year old, focuses mainly on plants of the Southern Hemisphere, and includes the largest collection of Australian flora outside of that continent, some 2,000 species and cultivars. The proteas, leucadendrons and leucospermums in particular are especially impressive.
Further afield, the smallish by comparison Leaning Pine Arboretum, at the edge of the Cal Poly campus in San Luis Obispo, also dedicates itself to plants from Mediterranean climate regions of the world. I have watched this garden evolve for many years and enjoy its ongoing experimentation with new plants and new garden techniques. The large and innovative Carex pansa lawn was impressive and the new cultivars of lavender, grevillea, coprosma, ceanothus and others deserved all of my attention.
Santa Barbara is only two hours away from us, yet many lovers of gardens have still not seen Lotusland. Why is that? The 37-acre Lotusland property is a Shangri-la of plants. Yes, advance reservations are required and tours are always docent led, but that should not deter any visitor. You don’t even need to be a plant connoisseur to enjoy Lotusland. In fact, it is a perfect place for a serious garden lover to bring a non-gardening friend or spouse for a fascinating day. Everyone likes Lotusland. The history of the property, the entertaining stories of its founder Madame Ganna Walska, the entertaining and artistic plantings and the whole ambiance of the site always make for a lovely visit.
Our last cultivated garden was planned as The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, but rain in the area encouraged us to divert instead to the world class display at The Huntington Library and Gardens north of Los Angeles. This is one of the great gardens of the world and a fitting conclusion to eight days of travel, gardens and plants.
But these gardens, the cultivated ones, were only half of our trip. In a future column, perhaps next week, I will tell you about some of the natural gardens that we visited and introduce you to some of the native flowers, plants and animals that we found along the way.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.
Questions from Readers June 11.
Recently I started noticing a lot of lizards around my garden. Should I be concerned?
Nick, Costa Mesa
That’s a great sign, Nick. You are either seeing Western Fence Lizards or Alligator Lizards, both of which are members of a healthy, well-balanced and wildlife-friendly garden. Though often unseen, they are beneficial to the garden because their prey includes grasshoppers, flies, grubs, snails, slugs, cockroaches and other small insects.