UC Santa Cruz Arboretum: South African Garden

One highlight of our recent trip to Santa Cruz was a visit to the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum. According to its website, the UCSC Arboretum has “the largest collection of Australian and South African plants outside of their native countries” as well as “the most diverse collection of eucalyptus and their relatives to be found in one easy-to-access area, an unmatched collection of conifers and other trees, and extensive representatives of New Zealand and native California flora.”

I had never been there and hence didn’t really know what to expect. In a nutshell, the two hours we spent there merely scratched the surface. I focused on the South African and Australian Gardens and completely ignored the New Zealand Garden and the California Natives Collection. While the Arboretum isn’t extraordinarily large, it still takes time to examine the plants that catch your eye for one reason or another—and there were many of those in spite of the overall autumnal (i.e. drab) look of the gardens.

In this post I will cover the South African Garden, to be followed by a post on the Australian Garden and a third post on some other interesting plants I came across, included mature clumps of bamboo.

I’ve never been to South Africa, but few countries have such a diversity of plants. Arid regions like the Karoo are home to succulents like aloes, crassulas, gasterias, haworthias, euphorbias, mesembs, and many others—more than 3,000 succulents species in total. That’s the kind of vegetation many of us think of when we hear “South Africa.”

However, South Africa also has ecosystems that are less arid. The best known of these is the Fynbos, the heath- and shrubland of the Western Cape. It covers 90,000 square miles and hosts 8,600 plant species. The best known Fynbos natives include the ericas, restios, and proteas. These are the kinds of South African plants represented in the UCSC Arboretum. This makes complete sense considering the climate of Santa Cruz. I don’t think succulents grow that well there—it simply doesn’t get hot enough and there’s too much moisture because of frequent fog.

The first group of plants I want to talk about are the restios. I blogged about restios earlier this year (1 2). Restios are rush-like flowering plants native to the southern hemisphere, especially Australia and South Africa. Some restios superficially resemble bamboos, others reeds and yet others horsetails (Equisetum hyemale). Since restios have no leaves, photosynthesis takes place in the green stems. The stems sometimes have papery sheaths, very much like the culm sheaths on bamboos.

I planted several restios in our front yard this year (Thamnochortus insignis, Elegia capensis, Rhodocoma capensis, and Rhodocoma gigantea) but they’re all still small. For that reason, I was thrilled to see mature specimens at the UCSC Arboretum.

Chondropetalum tectorum (in the back)
Chondropetalum tectorum, stems
Chondropetalum tectorum, flowers
Thamnochortus insignis
Rhodocoma gigantea
Rhodocoma gigantea
Rhodocoma gigantea

While I personally love the architectural look of restios and could spend a goodly amount of time examining the intricacies of their stems and lacy leaves, most people only give them a cursory glance and then move on—typically to flowering plants. And the flowers I came across in the South African Garden were spectacular. Foregoing manicured beds with smaller plants, the South African Garden instead focuses on large shrubs. As you can see below, their flowers are completely different from what you typically see in a regular North American yard.

Most of the flowering shrubs I encountered were from three genera: Leucospermum, Leucadendron, and Protea. All are part of the Proteaceae family which is endemic to the Southern Hemisphere (the banksias and grevilleas in the Australian Garden are also part of this family). Many of them have flowers that are nothing short of stunning.

Leucospermum cordifolium x tottum ‘Corralitos Pink’
Leucadendron salignum
Leucadendron salignum

Even when not in bloom, many leucadendrons provide year-round interest with unusual foliage and showy seed cones. In fact, their common name is “conebush.”

Leucadendron teretifolium
Leucadendron muirii
Seed cone of Leucadendron muirii
Seed cone on a different Leucadendron species

As attractive as the leucospermums and leucadendrons are, they play second fiddle to the proteas. Many of you have seen protea flowers in floral arrangements; they’re also popular as landscaping shrubs in Hawaii. Commonly called “sugarbushes,” proteas truly are magnificent, as you will see in the photos below. I wish I had room for a few in our yard, but they are large and require a milder climate than ours.

Protea repens ‘Embers’
Protea repens ‘Embers’
Protea repens ‘Rubens’ after the bloom has faded
Protea neriifolia x magnifica ‘'Bishop Tutu’
”Neriifolia” means “oleander-like leaves,” and you can definitely see the resemblance.
Protea neriifolia x magnifica ‘'Bishop Tutu’
Protea obtusifolia (white form)
Protea obtusifolia
Protea obtusifolia
Take a look at the amazing feather-like bracts. If you saw this photo without context, you’d think it was of a feathered animal.
Protea neriifolia x susannae ‘Pink Ice’
This was my favorite protea. The color makes me think of raspberry sorbet.

Proteas are not a common sight even in coastal California. From what I was able to gather, they require excellent drainage, slightly acidic soil, and warm days and cool nights. Most species and cultivars are frost-tender, which limits their use to places like Southern California and the warmer pockets of the San Francisco Bay Area. To quote one protea grower, “If you can grow a avocado, you can grow a protea.”

The UCSC Arboretum gift shop, Norrie’s, had a good selection of proteas and other South African shrubs for sale. That would be an excellent source if you live in a mild climate and want to give these truly unique shrubs a try. The Arboretum also holds regular plant sales where the shrubs I covered in this blog are available (check out the plant list from this year’s fall sale).

I want to end this post on a quieter note, and what is more soothing than a heath or heather (erica) in bloom. Most of us associate them with places like Yorkshire or Scotland, but out of the 860 species of ericas, 660 are endemic to South Africa. After I tore myself away from the protea spectacle, I came across the bench below and thought it looked very restful, surrounded as it was by various unassuming shrubs and a blooming Erica canaliculata. This would have been a great spot to have sit and read a book, but there was too much still left to see.

Erica canaliculata (behind bench)
Erica canaliculata

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  1. So much to love about this post, but I think the Protea photos were my favorite. Feathers? Okay, not feathers, but surely about as close as a plant can produce.

    I do love the Rhodocoma gigantea though... I may have to try that and overwinter it inside.

  2. Alan, I loved those proteas. I'm going to do more research to see if anybody's tried to grow them in a climate like ours.

    The Rhodocoma gigantea I bought in the spring is still small and spindly, nothing like the clumps I saw in Santa Cruz. But it was great getting a climpse of the potential. I'll keep mine in a large pot. You could do the same and simply roll the pot into the garage in the winter.

  3. Your photos are always so good but I am partial to your spectacular scenic photos of northern Vermont. I can picture so many of them blown-up and hanging on a wall.

  4. Gorgeous proteas, and especially restios, a plant I rarely see doing so well outside in the UK (bar mild coastal areas like Cornwall) :)


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