University of California Botanical Garden, part 1

I took advantage of the break between Christmas and New Year to visit the University of California Botanical Garden (UCBG) at Berkeley, about an hour from Davis. As expected, there were few visitors, which made for a leisurely pace and allowed me to take as many photos as I wanted, even in places that are often crowded (like the small Tropical House). Unfortunately, what was forecast to be an overcast day (good for photography) turned out to be sunny, so taking photographs in forested areas was all but impossible.

UCBG covers 30+ acres and is subdivided into nine major geographic regions (Mediterranean, Southern Africa, New World Desert, Mexico/Central America, South America, Eastern North America, California, Asia, Australasia) and several special collections (like Orchid, Fern & Carnivorous Plant House, Arid House, Tropical House, Cycad & Palm Garden, Garden of Old Roses, Crops of the World Garden, Herb Garden, Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden).

I didn’t walk through all areas because some of them aren’t that interesting to me and others aren’t that attractive in the winter. It should come as no surprise that I spent most of my time looking at cacti and succulents. But I also visited the Tropical House, which was much more bearable than in the summer, and enjoyed the coolness of the Cycad & Palm Garden. This post, therefore, doesn’t claim to give you a systematic overview of UCBG. Instead, it’s a somewhat random photo essay of plants that caught my eye.

I love the entrance to UCBG because it features a large specimen of one my favorite plants, the beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata). Peaking over the wall behind it and looking like a feather duster on a long pole is a culm of Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ‘Aztecorum’)…

The steely blue rosette on the left is Yucca rostrata

…which is planted on the other side of the wall. If I had to make a choice, I’d probably pick Otatea acuminata ‘Aztecorum’ as my favorite bamboo. I love its long slender leaves that move in the slightest breeze and impart an irresistibly tropical flair to any garden space.

Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ‘Aztecorum’)
Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ‘Aztecorum’)

The Entrance Plaza is one of my favorite spots in the entire garden because there are so many “spiky plants” that are both beautiful and rare, at least in Northern California. Just take a look at this combination of an Alexandria cycad from the coastal sand dunes of the Eastern Cape in South Africa (Encephalartos arenarius on the left) and a grass tree from Australia (Xanthorrhoea glauca on the right).

111228_UCBG_Xanthorrhoea-glauca Encephalartos-arenarius_002
LEFT: Encephalartos arenarius
RIGHT: Xanthorrhoea glauca

The next photo shows another Old-World-meets-New-World combination: Nelson’s bear grass from northern and northeastern Mexico (Nolina nelsonii on the left) and Encephalartos eugene-maraisii from Transvaal province in South Africa (on the right).

111228_UCBG_Encephalartos-eugene-maraisii- -Nolina-nelsonii_02
LEFT (in pot): Nolina nelsonii
RIGHT: Encephalartos eugene-maraisii

Speaking of cycads, UCBG has an extensive collection of these ancient cone-bearing plants. I didn’t see a sago palm (Cycas revoluta), far and away the most common cycad in cultivation, but I saw representatives of the genera Cycas, Encephalartos, Macrozamia, and Dioon. I’m sure they have other genera as well, but not all cycads are distinctive enough to stand out—some look like young palms with plain green fronds.

The following cycads did stand out, and I would be thrilled to have any of them in my garden. Just to give you an idea of how valuable these plants are: At A&A Cycads, one of the leading cycad nurseries in the U.S., an Encephalartos arenarius specimen with a 10 inch caudex (base) is $2,375. The plants below are bigger than that.

Two Encephalartos arenarius,
native to the coastal sand dunes of the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa
Encephalartos trispinosus, also native to South Africa’s Eastern Cape province
Another Encephalartos trispinosus
Close-up of Encephalartos trispinosus leaves
Encephalartos horridus × longifolius with a particularly large caudex.
This one is right next to the Conference Center.
Macrozamia moorei, native to Queensland, Australia

But let’s go back to the Entrance Plaza. On the left is the Garden Shop which sells not only books, jewelry and all the other stuff you’d expect from a gift shop at a botanical garden, but also a surprisingly large selection of plants. Below is just a tiny portion of what’s available. They sell cacti and succulents, California natives, perennials, trees and shrubs, and even rare collector’s plants like monkey puzzle tree seedlings. The prices are very fair, and UCBG members get a 10% discount.

Some of the plants available for sale on the plant deck outside the Garden Shop. I was particularly surprised to see Fargesia, a clumping bamboo from the mountains of China (species not identified).

Straight ahead from the entrance is the Arid House, a temperature-controlled structure housing tender succulents, cacti and caudiciforms (“fat plants”) from the Old and the New World.

Looking towards the Arid House
Yucca rostrata and Agave americana ‘Mediopicta alba’ outside the Arid House
Yucca rostrata
Yucca rostrata

These three Dudleya brittonii are planted outside the Arid House. They are truly perfect specimens of this rare succulent from Baja California. The rosette is covered with a white “wax” that comes off very easily, hence the sign not to touch the plants. According to Wikipedia, the wax on Dudleya brittonii has the highest measured ultraviolet reflectivity of any plant.

Dudleya brittonii
Dudleya brittonii
Dudleya brittonii

Dudleya pulverulenta, shown in the next photo, is closely related to Dudleya brittonii and grows in coastal and inland mountains. It is challenging in cultivation, at least to me; I bought one from Annie’s Annuals this summer and planted it in the succulent bed next to our front door. Within the space of two weeks, it died in front of my eyes. I think our hot summer sun was too much. I will try another one next year and keep it shaded.

Dudleya pulverulenta

Now let’s take a look at a few plants inside the Arid House. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of potted succulents, all cheek by jowl. Many of them are rare and of interest only to conservationists and collectors, not necessarily beautiful to look at. But the following caught my eye.

Browningia hertlingiana, a columnar cactus from Peru with amazingly blue coloration
Euphorbia horrida (possibly cultivar ‘Snowflake’?) from South Africa, not a cactus at all but with a very similar look and growth form
Desert rose (Adenium obesum), dormant for the winter
Elephant’s foot (Dioscorea elephantipes), a caudiciform from South Africa, also dormant. The stalk remnant on the top is from the annual vine that emerges in the spring and can grow to considerable length (12 ft. and longer).
Socotran fig (Dorstenia gigas), a rare pachycaul tree from the island of Socotra. I bought a small seedling at a UC Davis Arboretum plant sale and it’s dormant for the winter, unlike this specimen.
Tylecodon reticulatus, a winter-growing “fat plant” from South Africa (where else)

The strangest plant in the Arid House is definitely Welwitschia mirabilis, considered a living fossil. It is found only in the Namib Desert of Namibia and Angola where it grows in incredible hostile conditions. Although age is difficult to assess, individual plants are assumed to live over 1,000 years. In a 2009 competition by British newspaper Daily Telegraph to find the “World’s Ugliest Plant,” Welwitschia mirabilis came in fourth. The specimen at the UCBG is actually a real beauty compared to plants in the wild (be sure to check out this blog post).

Welwitschia mirabilis
Welwitschia mirabilis

In the South Africa section just outside the Arid House, I came across a plant that reminded me a little of Welwitschia mirabilis. It’s a bulb called Boophone haemanthoides. The bulb can grow to a diameter of 8 inches or more and is mostly exposed, much like an amaryllis (to which Boophone is related). Check this page for much better photos. I actually wouldn’t mind having this plant in my garden!

Boophone haemanthoides

My favorite aloe of all is the fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis), and UCBG has a particularly stunning specimen. I dream of having one like that! My own Aloe plicatilis does have a trunk now and it bloomed for the first time last year, but it’ll be years before it’s even half that large.

Aloe plicatilis
Aloe plicatilis

I had expected the winter-blooming aloes to be in full flower, but it looks like many of them still have weeks to go. Here is an emerging flower stalk on an unidentified aloe.

Emerging flower on unidentified aloe

This clump of Aloe pluridens, on the other hand, was in full flower, as were many Aloe arborescens I saw around Berkeley.

Aloe pluridens

One of the biggest surprise of this visit was coming across two oxalis from South Africa that are actually ornamental and garden-worthy. As you may remember, common yellow oxalis (wood sorrel) is my #1 enemy; it might quite possibly be the most invasive, obnoxious and hardest to kill weed in existence. In contrast, these two oxalis are apparently non-invasive. I must say I am tempted to add them to my succulent bed where they would make a great groundcover.

Oxalis hirta, available for purchase at Annie’s Annuals
Oxalis purpurea ‘Alba’, “not in the least bit invasive” according to this article

Click here to go to part 2 of this post. We’ll visit the New World Desert, the Tropical House, and the fantastic Tasmanian tree ferns.


  1. I love the Yucca rostrata, and a quick search indicates I should be able to grow it here in St. Louis -- if I can get it into some well-draining soil. I'm adding this to my list...

  2. Alan, Yucca rostrata appears to be one of the hardiest yuccas, and in my opinion is the most striking. It's a very slow grower, so you may want to get a larger plant to start with. I think it would be a great addition to your garden.

  3. What a great series of posts to end the year with! I am jealous of your visit. We were there in October of 2009 and it was a wonderful experience, I would love to go back. That entrance courtyard was the first place I remember seeing Encephalartos and I was awe-struck. Later in the same vacation we visited Lotusland and there I purchased a very small plant. It's still alive but hasn't grown at all. I'm looking forward to your Part II!

  4. Loree, part 2 is coming up this afternoon. I've been a member of UCBG for a couple of years now but I don't go as often as I should. I will make more of an effort in 2012 since it really is quite close to where I live--and it's a spectacular place. If you ever make it back, try to visit on a Thursday because the Landscape Cacti and Succulent Nursery (adjacent to the parking lot) is open on Thursday from 10:30am to 1:00pm for plant sales. I've gotten dozens of plants from there. Check out their availability list at

    Lotusland looks like a dream come true for a succulent lover. I've never been, but we're planning a trip to Santa Barbara this coming summer.

  5. Great photos! I was especially amazed at the Euphorbia horrida 'Snowflake'. I have a young one and didn't realize mature forms are quite prostrate and tentacled. Envious! :-)

  6. What a treat Gerhard, so many stunning plants I'm finding it difficult which plants to comment on first!

    Ok, I'll start with Cycads, gorgeous specimens especially the Macrozamias and Encephalartos. I could easily get into cycads, the only thing is it is a VERY expensive group of plants to collect because of their inherent feature.

    And that Otatea, love it! It could easily be my favourite bamboo too, had if not for the fact I could not get it to look like that in our garden. The one I had faded away in time and it was even kept inside a heated greenhouse.

    Yucca rostrata, supremely architectural plant!

  7. Yes that Otatea is my favorite bamboo as well--so gorgeous. And ditto for hating that yellow Oxalis weed. Grrrrr!

  8. Mel, not 100% sure it was E. horrida 'Snowflake' (no label) but it certainly looked like it to me. Adult plants are always so much more impressive.

    Mark & Gaz, I have to force myself to stay away from cycads. Too much temptation. But I may get some seedlings; they're relatively inexpensive. In 20 years I should plants of a decent size :-).

    My otatea is in a 20 inch pot. It has grown a lot bushier this past year but the culms are still spindly. I'm not sure how large it will get in a container. I may have to put it in the ground.

  9. I reallllllly want a Yucca rostrata!!!! And it is settled, I am going there! Wonderful post and your photos are wonderful my friend!


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