There are many reasons to visit San Francisco. It has an amazing modern art museum, a spectacular bridge, great restaurants, and enchanting Victorian architecture, but the best reason for me is the San Francisco Botanical Garden. It’s my favorite garden on the West Coast. I love the Bellevue Botanical Garden in Seattle and the Portland Japanese Garden, even the San Diego Botanic Garden is impressive, but I adore the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Its mixture of open vistas and intimate spaces creates a continuous change of feeling and awe as you move through. The plants are delightful in their variety of shape and color. Everything from palm trees to giant redwoods and from Northern camellias to South African protea. It’s a feast for the botanically inclined.
San Francisco Botanical Garden: Gardens Within a Garden
Curator Ryan Guillou says, “I love the Garden because of the unique plant diversity we are able to display and help safeguard here.” And it truly is unique. Because San Francisco has rainy winters and dry summers and continuous coastal fog, it allows the garden to grow over 8,500 different kinds of plants of various climates. These are collected in smaller gardens within the larger 55-acre park. There’s a California Native Garden, an Andean Cloud Forest, Australian and Chilean Garden, an Ancient Plant Garden, Rhododendron Garden, Temperate Asian Garden, and more. You won’t find that diversity in other public gardens and SFBG makes the most of it.
The San Francisco Botanical Garden in Autumn
Several years ago, I visited the San Francisco Botanical Garden in May, during the height of its beauty. The California garden was wild with native color. The Perennial Garden featured interesting plant combinations I hadn’t seen before, and the Rhododendron Garden, a Northwest plant I’m well familiar with, was bursting with bold blooms on old specimens. It was magical. There were many warm-weather, large-leafed plants that I, nor probably you, can grow in my agricultural zone yet also unknown cultivars of familiar plants that I could grow. I got a lot of ideas and inspiration. This last year in 2017, I visited in November, a little worried that there may not be much in bloom. I was pleasantly surprised. The SFBG has designed the garden so there is year-round interest.
The Highlights of the Garden
One of the biggest highlights for me is the Ancient Plant Garden, which talks a lot about early Earth history. There’s great information about the five epochs of ancient times: Devonian, Pennsylvanian, Jurassic, Cretaceous, and Eocene. This garden may be the most fun. As you wind through a boardwalk, you’re enveloped by towering tree ferns and broad cycads. The Gunnera leaves are the size of large umbrellas and the Podocarpus give an exaggerated meaning to the word “conifer.” It’s all very storybook and larger than life.
Another favorite area is the Australia and New Zealand Gardens. In Seattle, we can grow a lot of Down Under plants (Phormium, Grevillea, Callistemon, Araucaria) but the garden here is full of exotics with wonderfully contrasting textures I can only dream about. Cordylines add surprising red spikes to the landscape while the brush-like blooms of Banksia light up a sunny day. The epiphytic Staghorn Ferns, hanging on their Water Gum tree hosts, are creepy and cool. And the giant Eucalyptus is worth a look for the strange peeling bark if nothing else.
Lastly, I’d recommend that if you’re in San Francisco and don’t have time to journey south to see the Redwood Forests, visit the Redwood Grove here. Botanically, redwoods are classified as Sequoias and Sequoias are incredibly beautiful. The bark is a reddish color, yes, but the trunk’s base undulates as it ages, bringing a fairy tale quality to the tree, so tall and mighty that you’ll feel like a tiny elf in a wooded wonderland.