Tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the California desert, San Diego offers a vast variety of garden destinations for travelers to enjoy.
The city’s climate is almost completely dominated by the ocean with perfect weather nearly year round. The winters are mild and the summers cool. The sun is shielded by a high overcast until afternoon on many spring and early summer days. How can a gardener get so lucky?
While it’s tempting to spend the day on the beach or strolling Old Town, make sure to visit Balboa Park, San Diego’s showcase for plants and gardens. Set on 1,200 acres, the gardens are filled with plant delights.
There are 15 garden areas in the Park, plus the botanical collection at the famed San Diego Zoo and the West Mesa area with stands of trees from around the world. You can spend a week exploring the gardens, so here are the top places to take in if you only have a day or a short weekend.
The Balboa Park Visitors Center, located in the National Historic Landmark House of Hospitality building, should be your first stop. There you can pick up a park map and a special brochure, The Gardens of Balboa Park Self-Guided Walk. Both are needed since some of the gardens are tucked behind the park’s museums.
There are two must visit desert gardens. The 1935 Cactus Garden was developed by Kate Sessions, known as the “Mother of Balboa Park,” for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. It has some of the largest cactus and succulent specimens in the Park, including giant aloes with bright coral colored blooms in late winter and early spring.
The Desert Garden is a popular stop and contains more than 1,300 plants, including succulents and xerophytic plants from around the world. This hillside garden includes Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifilia), Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco), Candelabra Tree (Euphorbia ingens), Mexican Grass Tree (Dasylirion quadrangulatum), aloe, and cactus of every shape and size. The peak blooming period is January through March however, these plants are interesting any time of the year because of their unusual shapes.
Step inside the Botanical Building, built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, and see the collection of 2,100 cycads, ferns, orchids, bromeliads, palms, and other spectacular plantings. The iconic building is one of the largest lath structures in the world and a picturesque stop with the Lily Pond at the entrance. There is a free 45-minute docent-led tour of the Botanical Building at 11am on the 3rd Friday of the month. Tours leave from the south end of the Lily Pond.
Most people go to the famed San Diego Zoo for the animals, but garden lovers will pay attention to the Zoo’s 700,000 botanical collection of bamboo, cycads, fig trees, palms, acacias, coral trees, aloes, orchids, gingers, and many rare and endangered species. Standing tall at the entrance is a giant Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla banyan) with multiple banyaning branches.
Other gardens of note are the Japanese Friendship Garden with traditional sand and stone designs and the Alcazar Garden featuring formal boxwood hedges and 7,000 colorful annuals. The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden with 2,500 roses is considered one of the top 12 rose gardens in the world by the World Federation of Rose Societies.
Admission to the gardens is free except the Zoo and the Japanese Friendship Garden. The park is open year round. On Saturdays there are free guided tours of the gardens that depart from the visitors center at 10am. www.balboapark.org.
Flower Photo: Balboa Park/Richard Benton; Featured Photo: Downtown Ash Street Jacarandas / SanDiego.org
WHEN YOU GO:
Balboa Park is more than gardens and includes over a dozen cultural museums and several performing arts venues, including the famed San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego Natural History Museum.
The US Grant hotel in downtown San Diego has been an icon of the city since 1910. Completely refurbished, its Gaslamp Quarter location is steps from the city’s shopping, dining and entertainment and an easy walk to the San Diego bay attractions.
Beverly Hurley is the editor of Triangle Gardener magazine in North Carolina. When she isn’t gardening at home, she loves to visit public gardens wherever she travels.