Evolving Ideas; Celebrating Botanical Milestones


Dedicated staff and volunteers have been caring for the plants of the San Francisco Botanical Garden for 75 years.


This is the time of year where we traditionally reflect on the past as well as look forward to the future. There have been a number of important anniversaries to celebrate this past year; 800 years since the Magna Carta, 250 years since the first French restaurant – and yes, 30 years since Saturday Night Live. These are all inconceivably important to our lives of course, but I would like to note several more anniversaries that have had an important influence on the botanical world, in our little corner of the globe.


Digital StillCamera

The fog-kissed gardens, at the western end of San Francisco, have been an excellent location to grow plants native to mild Mediterranean climates and Cloud Forests from around the world .


— Celebrating 75 years; the San Francisco Botanic Garden first opened to the public in 1940. Created from funds bequeathed by Helene Strybing, for whom it was named for many years.  The garden was built on acres of sand dunes set aside in Golden Gate Park, where topsoil had to be created and water provided to establish the earliest plantings.



Mona Bourell, Plant Collections Manager, explains the importance of the Magnolia collection at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens.(photo Joy Albright-Souza)


Thanks to the interests and efforts of the early garden leaders, the Magnolia collection is extensive. In fact, the garden boasts the most important conservation collection of Magnolias, outside of China. A visit during the winter and spring bloom period is well worth a trip.  An extensive collection of Camellias show off during the winter months as well.



The Magnolia collection blooms from January to May, some varieties don’t exist anywhere else outside of China.


The partnership with the next-door California Academy of Science has led to important collections in plants from around the world, Meso-America and the Mexican state of Chiapas, in particular. In fact, it is believed that some species, growing in the garden, may already be extinct in the wild.



Classically framed views through the garden were created during a past update to the Master Plan at San Francisco Botanical Garden.


There’s always something interesting and beautiful in this world class garden but it is particularly well-known for it’s Cloud Forest garden and one of the worlds most comprehensive collections of high elevation palm species, starring the Andean Wax Palm, the tallest species of Palm in the world.



The SFBG beautifully combines plantings that thrive in a Mediterranean climate, with classic garden elements and places to sit.(photo Joy Albright-Souza)


SFBG has gone through several Master Plans, throughout its history. The gardens continue to evolve in how they present  the collections and educate visitors. If you visit, note the beautiful and informative signage throughout the grounds, with illustrations by my friend Lee Boerger.



SFBG gardener Jason Martinez transformed an ivy-covered hill into a showcase for plants suitable for today’s low-water gardens.


Other inspirational garden areas at SFBG include; the Ancient Plant Garden, the Fragrance Garden and the California Native Garden. Grouped by area of origin you can explore rich plant communities from South Africa, New Zealand, Eastern Australia and Chile as well. Find out more here.


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The Arthur L. Menzies garden, at SFBG, is a four acre showcase for California Native Plants.


— Celebrating 50 years; The California Native Plant Society began in 1965 when a group of plant lovers decided to save a garden of California coastal natives that was threatened in Berkeley. They have been a combination of professionals and amateurs, dedicated to preserving native plants, at the local and the state level, ever since.



Views worth saving; California Live Oak grassland along the central coast.(photo Joy Albright-Souza)


The mission of CNPS is “to conserve California native plants and their natural habitats, and increase understanding, appreciation, and horticultural use of native plants”. They use a variety of methods and programs to help accomplish their mission.



The California Native Plant Society inspires landscaping with locally sourced natives such as Ceanothus and annual Eschscholtzia.


One of the earliest methods was to document threatened plant species that needed conservation. They began their Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants in the 1960’s, keeping the information in a card file. The current Inventory is now available online and remains a free resource for the public. There is a popular offshoot to the program called the Rare Plant Treasure Hunt.



California Native plant combination of blue Fescue grass and Douglas iris, as seen in a private garden on a CNPS plant tour.


Early efforts to preserve rare plants led to programs that sought to identify and preserve the natural communities upon which rare plants depended. This led to A Manual of California Vegetation, originally published in 1995, the updated online version launched in 2015. Many educational books and journals have been created and published by CNPS to share knowledge of California’s unique plant communities.

The tools and methods to accomplish the mission have evolved greatly, in the last 50 years, but the passion to preserve, protect and appreciate California’s native plants has only increased. Check out their resources here.


Eucalyptus Blue Gum

Eucalyptus trees planted in the early years of the UCSC Arboretum are now beautiful towering specimens.


— Also celebrating 50 years of conservation and education is the University of California Santa Cruz and its Arboretum. Founded in 1965 on the Cowell Family Ranch, UCSC held its first classes in trailers and what would become a world-class Arboretum, under the direction of founder Dr. Ray Collett (1933-2012), began with 80 unusual types of Eucalyptus.



Botanical gardens are wonderful places for seeing the mature size and habits of unfamiliar plants.


Dr. Collett emphasized the collection of plants from Mediterranean-type climates from the beginning. UCSC has extensive gardens of plants from New Zealand, South Africa and Chile. The Arboretum is believed to have the largest collection of Australian plants outside of Australia. The grounds are home to a research conifer collection and extensive plantings of succulents and California natives as well.


Blooming Agave and Festival Grass

A spectacular urn of red Cordyline “Festival Grass” creates a focal point for a hillside of interesting low-water plants, such as blooming Agave, at the UCSC Arboretum.(photo Joy Albright-Souza)


The UCSC Arboretum is dear to my heart , not only because I was a student there under Dr. Collett, but because I continue to use the garden as research for my planting designs.  There’s no substitute for seeing the mature size or growth habits of little-known plants in person or the usefulness of knowing what a particular plant looks like in it’s “off” season. I use the garden as a resource for photos of plant details, that I provide my clients, when I need a species that I’m not already growing myself.




The mild coastal location of the UCSC garden creates a perfect spot for extensive collections of plants from Mediterranean climates.


Find out more information about the gardens at UCSC here. 

Whether this inspires you to visit a botanical garden or simply learn more about the special plants where you live, may you appreciate the dedication it takes to bring ideas, both big and small, to fruition.

“The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups…And they are known to change the world” – Barbara Kingsolver

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Categories: Native Plants, Places to See


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