Califonia Bountiful

Pat's Garden Travels: Best native gardens in California

July/August 2019 California Bountiful magazine

California offers a wealth of public gardens to discover. Join California Bountiful gardening expert Pat Rubin as she travels the state, bringing you the best of her travels to inspire yours.

This issue, Pat invites you to take in a few of her favorite public gardens dedicated to drought-tolerant and California native plants. These three happen to be on university campuses.

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden
1500 N. College Ave., Claremont

Photo courtesy of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Most gardeners interested in plants adapted to hot California valleys and foothills are happy to use plants from many of the world's Mediterranean climates. But at Rancho Santa Ana, the emphasis is on California natives. Its goal is to preserve habitat and California native plants from all areas of California. And while the landscape may look wild and untouched, rest assured Rancho Santa Ana staff carefully monitor the landscape to keep it looking just as Mother Nature intended. Be sure to see the many varieties of oak and pine.

The garden is located at Claremont College, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. The garden covers 86 acres and is divided into three distinct areas. Luckily for plant lovers, there is a native plant nursery near the entrance of the garden. 

Ruth Risdon Storer Garden
UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden

University of California, Davis

Photo courtesy of UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden/Allan Jones

The Ruth Risdon Storer Garden is proof you can have a lush, full garden and still be water-wise and climate appropriate. It is truly the best of what a California garden can be, chock-full of plants that can stand up to any amount of heat Mother Nature can dish out, with a minimum of fuss, and still look lush and fresh. The collection exemplifies "Valley-Wise" gardening, with selections perfectly suited to California's Central Valley.

Step into the garden from beneath the shade trees along Garrod Street and the first sight that greets you is a generous clump of Stipa gigantea, its tall stems topped with lax, oat-like flowers dangling and catching the evening sun, while the feather reed grass in the next bed sways gently, just touching its neighbors lightly as the delta breeze picks up. Its slim golden flower spikes gleam when the sun hits them.

There's rosemary, lavender and Russian sage. There's ornamental oregano spilling its showy bracts into the paths. There's snow-in-summer carpeting great swards with its silvery-white leaves, and dianthus wending its way through taller perennials with its spiky, silvery-blue foliage. There's a small-leaved ice plant covered in cheerful purple-pink flowers as you round the bend. There's an abundance of bright yellow daisies, cool blue spires of perovskia, fiery red salvias and long stems of garua with its white flowers that seem to dance along the stems.

If you want to see what really does well in summer, our harshest season, visit the Storer garden in July or August.

Mary Wattis Brown Native Plant Garden
UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden

University of California, Davis

Photo courtesy of UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden

Follow Old Davis Road into the campus, make a left at Mrak Hall Drive and just as you drive over the bridge, look either direction for a sight that will take your breath away. It's the native plant garden at the arboretum.

A sign at the top of the path that leads down to the water announces your arrival at the Mary Wattis Brown Garden of Native Plants. Follow the path down along the banks of the creek and leave behind the hustle and bustle of life. The air is softer, quieter. A large valley oak, its gnarled branches reaching high overhead, its twigs covered with galls and bits of lichen, surround and envelop you. It shelters the plants beneath with its great canopy of shade. The wild roses and raspberries growing in a tangle on the banks of the creek hang their thorny canes over the water.

The Brown garden is a small portion of the California native plants section of the arboretum. Brown was an enthusiastic fan of California native plants and in the late 1970s, her family donated funds to maintain this section of the native garden in her honor. It includes many drought-tolerant species suitable for home gardens as well as many rare or endangered plants. Head west, though, and you'll pass through California natives from both the Central Valley and the foothills.

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