Every city has one garden you can’t miss where visitors feel at home and guests can indulge their sights and senses in horticultural excellence. In San Luis Obispo, that place is the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden.
But don’t expect to see just native flora and fauna, because this garden offers notables from five Mediterranean climates throughout the world. Many wonderful perennials, tropicals, and succulents are featured on 10 acres of manicured gardens with miles of paved trails to inspire visitors to embrace nature. San Luis Obispo, a county on California’s Central Coast, provides an ideal climate for a Mediterranean-themed garden.
The vision for the botanical garden originated in 1989 with Eve Vigil, then a student in ornamental horticulture at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. By 1993, a 150-acre parcel in the rolling hills of El Chorro Regional Park became the future home of the botanical garden. And by 1997, it officially opened with the Preview Garden. Over time, the garden continued its expansion based on a master plan with a goal to continue until all 150 acres are cultivated.
Today, the garden consists of an Education Center, Fire Safe Garden, Life Celebration Garden, Display Garden, two trails – the Discovery and Panorama Trails, Weaving Restoration Garden, and the Children’s Garden. Eventually, the garden will expand throughout the 150 acres to display a diverse collection of beautiful, water-conserving plants from the five Mediterranean climate regions of the world – Chile, South Africa, Australia, the Mediterranean, and California. The expanded ecosystem will include plants such as the one-sided bottlebrush, native to Southwest Australia, the Amarcrinum memoriacorsi, a South African hybrid, and the lanceleaf liveforever, native to California, just to name a few.
Fire Safe Garden
Not far from the visitor reception and Education Center is the Fire Safe Garden. Especially important in the wildfire-prone West, this demonstration garden displays fire resistant landscape plants and design principles aimed at protecting property from wildfires. It shows how properly spaced live, healthy plants such as green grass, succulents, and well-maintained shrubs and trees can protect a home.
This two-acre plot, one of the garden’s most important representations, provides an excellent display of plants from Mediterranean climates in the world. It includes plant life from California, central coastal Chile, the Mediterranean Basin, the western cape of South Africa, and parts of Western and South Australia. Plants from these regions have adapted to dry summers, especially important in drought prone California as they are more drought tolerant and conserve water.
Through the developed parts of the Display Garden, meandering paths circulate visitors around the base of the mountain to explore specimens like the breath of heaven plant under a canopy of oak trees. Dynamic life-sized metal sculptures, contributed by local artists, decorate this part of the garden.
Discovery and Panorama Trails
One of the most dramatic features of the garden is the Discovery Hike with views that stretch all the way to Morro Bay. It includes the existing Discovery Trail and the Panorama Trail, currently under development.
Trail paths of decomposed granite ascend the west facing slopes of the mountain in a zig-zag manner creating terraced levels lined with native shrubs like California sagebrush and tall kangaroo paws. A soft fragrance of lavender wafts through the air. About 100 feet up, the Discovery Trail plateaus where a huge, interactive sundial exists surrounded by one of the largest groves of Chilean wine palms planted outside of Chile. Visitors can stand in the middle of the dial and let their shadows cast the time of day.
The Discovery Trail extends for 1 ½ miles up hundreds of feet and around the gently sloping mountain to the Future Garden. Eventually, the remaining, higher elevation acres will be developed into five differently planted Mediterranean Zones representing California, the Mediterranean Basin, Chile, South Africa, and Australia, to become one of the largest botanical gardens in the West.
A children’s garden and play area, created to look like a fairytale experience through the forest and across a charming bridge, leads to an open space set with seating for storytelling time. A fence built with slats brightly painted with happy creatures and colors surrounds the children’s garden. Inside a large sandbox with small pails and shovels awaits sandcastle playtime. A makeshift adobe oven offers visiting children pretend kitchen cooking activity.
The dirt path that leads through the Children’s Garden connects visitors to the longer Discovery Trail. It crosses a stone padded dry creek bed and starts the ascent up the mountain to the soon to be developed California Mediterranean Zone.
Life Celebration Garden
The Life Celebration Garden provides a quiet outdoor venue to contemplate memories of a loved one. The garden also features two outdoor works of art, Ann Bernhardt’s basalt sculpture, Return, and Allen Roots’ flowing metal circles, Celebration.
Weaving Restoration Garden
The Weaving Restoration Garden features California native plants important to indigenous cultures. Growing here are California native medicinal and basket weaving plants.
When You Go
San Luis Obispo is located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Direct flights to the region and Highway 101 make it easy for a getaway to the Central Coast. The San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden is located at 3450 Dairy Creek Road within El Chorro Regional Park off Highway 1 between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Admission is charged but garden members are free. For more information on the garden, visit slobg.org. For more information on planning your trip, Visit San Luis Obispo.
Where to Eat
Although the garden does not maintain an onsite restaurant, the Siren Restaurant is nearby within the El Chorro Regional Park. The restaurant offers an extensive drink menu, delicious pub fare, and weekend brunch.
Where to Stay
Several hotels are just ten to fifteen minutes away. The Kinney San Luis Obispo, Tapestry Collection is near downtown San Luis Obispo. Its college themed décor gives a nod to the nearby California Polytechnic University. The hotel maintains an onsite restaurant and bar. Hotel San Luis Obispo in downtown offers luxury accommodations, an onsite spa, and gourmet cuisine in its onsite restaurant.
Running through Sunday, January 8, 2023, the garden comes alive at night with its brand-new event – Nature Nights. After dark, the landscapes become “lightscaped.” Illuminated large format wire sculptures captivate visitors’ attention along with the strategically crafted, artist lighting of the garden paths, trees, and cultivated areas. Nature’s beauty, enhanced by light, is captured in the abstract and set all aglow.
The event features large format light projections by Bryn Forbes, illuminated sculptures by Michael Reddell, and artistic lighting throughout the garden by Kody Cava. Culinary delights, regional wine, and beer are available for purchase catered for this event.
There is a magical quality to the lighted wizardry of this garden, not gawdy or excessively ostentatious, but more artistically celebratory. Nature Nights not only illuminates a new beginning for the future development of the garden but also highlights for visitors a return to pre-COVID enjoyment there, reminiscent of the musical phrases from The Wizard of Oz as they walked along the trail singing, “We’re out of the woods, we’re into the light.” Perhaps visitors to Nature Nights will also feel so inspired.
The event is a major fundraiser for developing the Future Garden. Visit the website for more information and tickets.
Featured image: Display Garden / Pam and Gary Baker
Pam and Gary Baker are California-based food, wine, and travel writers. They love exploring the world and discovering new places, especially when it includes exploring new gardens. Pamandgarybaker.com.