UC Davis Botanical Conservatory greenhouses

On Saturday I went on a field trip with the Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society to tour the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory greenhouses. According to their web site:

The collection began in 1959 as a collection of coleus plants within the 3,600 sq. foot greenhouse now known as the Botanical Conservatory. Today, the complex north of Storer Hall serves the University and public communities as an educational facility, research resource and genetic diversity preserve. The complex houses over 3,000 plant species in more than 150 families, including examples from most of the world's climatic regions.

Ernesto Sandoval, the director of the Botanical Conservatory, gave us an in-depth tour of their collection. And what a collection it is! While our tour focused on succulents in all their diversity, the greenhouses are also home to many different tropical and subtropical plants. Some of them you will see below. This post has 60+ photos so please give it some time to load.

Our tour started in the outside succulent area where we ooh’ed and aah’ed over table upon table of goodies.

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Table after table of succulent goodies—the beauty on the right is a Dudleya brittonii


Assorted echeverias

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Two aloes that caught my eye.
The one on the left is Aloe erinacea, the one on the right didn’t have a label.


Juvenile Aloe suprafoliata with stacked (distichous) leaves. You can see why Annie’s Annuals calls this species “mustache aloe.” Mature plants have a more typical rosette.


Aloe suprafoliata


Aloe suprafoliata

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LEFT: Tylecodon wallichii
RIGHT: assorted succulents


Othonna cyclophylla—at a distance these looked like cabbage seedlings

Interspersed with the many different succulent genera were South African bulbs, some of which—like the Brunsvigia josephinae—could pass as traditional succulents.


Brunsvigia josephinae


Boophane disticha

More than a few SCSS members fell head over heels in love with these bulbs, especially the ones that were in bloom. It’s easy to see why. Fortunately, several bulb species were for sale—at extremely fair prices to boot.


Lachenalia aloides ‘Quadricolor’


Lachenalia aloides

The cactus tables in the outside area were also packed with plants. While I love cactus, I don’t consider myself an expert so I can’t comment on the “quality” of their collection but I sure liked the variety!


Assorted cacti


Creeping devil cactus (Machaerocereus eruca)

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LEFT: Creeping devil cactus (Machaerocereus eruca)
RIGHT: Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)


Unidentified cactus flower


Mammillaria elongata


More assorted cacti

Unfortunately, I only saw two agaves, but they were beauties in spite of the bird poop.


Agave parryi with bird poop

Next, our tour moved inside into one of the heated greenhouses. The transition from the crisp outside air (55°F, give or take) to a constant climate of 75°F+ and 80%+ humidity came as quite a shock. Within minutes people were starting to take off their jackets. But in light of the sheer variety of plants packed into this greenhouse, we didn’t dwell too much on our physical discomfort.


Ernesto Sandoval with a cactus he grafted


Ernesto Sandoval showing capillary tissue of a cactus


Euphorbia pteroneura


Deuterocohnia lorentziana


Ernesto Sandoval with a giant pipevine flower (Aristolochia gigantea)

While most SCSS members were primarily interested in succulents, it was impossible not to be enchanted by many of the other plants inside the greenhouse. Just take a look at the begonia in the next photo and tell me you’re not fascinated by it! Its leaves were soft and velvety, like a lamb’s ear, but much firmer.


Begonia masoniana

And who can resist this? It’s the fruit of the cocoa tree. Each pod contains 20-60 seeds (“cocoa beans”) which are dried and roasted to produce cacao nibs, the main ingredient in chocolate.


Cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao)

Here are some more hot house beauties:


Adiantium peruvianum


Dioon mejiae


Zamia integrifolia

Leaving behind the hot and humid section of the greenhouse, we stepped into the heated but dry “African desert” room. It is jam-packed with all kinds of fantastical plants, as you can see in the next set of photos.

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Assorted caudiciforms


Assorted caudiciforms


Madagascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei)

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LEFT: Pachypodium lamerei
RIGHT: Euphorbia neohumbertii


Euphorbia neohumbertii


Elephant’s foot (Dioscorea elephantipes)

UC Davis is one of the few places in the country that has been successful in consistently propagating two very rare pachycauls from the island of Socotra off the coast of Yemen: the cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotranus) and the Socotran fig (Dorstenia gigas). Check this article to see photos of mature specimens in situ.

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LEFT: Cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotranus)
RIGHT: Socotran fig (Dorstenia gigas)
I was able to buy specimens of both at a great price to complement the two I already had.


Dendrosicyos socotranus


Dendrosicyos socotranus


Dendrosicyos socotranus


Dendrosicyos socotranus flower


Dozens of Dorstenia gigas


Dorstenia gigas for sale—I snagged one

Another plant that attracted a lot of attention among our group was Welwitschia mirabilis, voted the world’s ugliest plant in 2009 by readers of the Daily Telegraph in the U.K. The Kew website has a lot of interesting information about this extremely strange plant from the Namibian Desert.

In the next two photos you’ll see that the specimens at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory grow in tall chimney pipes. The reason is that Welwitschia mirabilis has a very long taproot to access underground water sources. Some sources suggest that this taproot can go as deep at 100 ft.


Welwitschia mirabilis


Welwitschia mirabilis


Welwitschia mirabilis


Welwitschia mirabilis

Like conifers, ginkgos and cycads, Welwitschia mirabilis is a gymnosperm, meaning that it produces seed cones. I was very excited to see that one of the specimens at UC Davis actually had cones on it. They made a weird and wonderful plant even more weird and wonderful.


Welwitschia mirabilis seed cones


Welwitschia mirabilis seed cones

Even though we saw a great many different plants on our tour, I have a feeling there is much more still left to discover. I can’t wait for an opportunity to go back!



  1. Fabulous! What a wonderful trip, made even better by the chance to purchase a few plants. I must ask, weren't you just dying to pull the dead leaves off the bottom of that Dudleya brittonii? I was!

    And least their two agaves were nice ones, minus the bird poop of course.

  2. That looks so fun Gerhard! So many beauties and goodies! If this was a retail nursery I can imagine you would have splurged with all those beautiful plants on display!

  3. What variety, and what a great opportunity!

  4. Oh Gerhard, what a great collections they have. I really would have to make an effort to go visit. I want one of those MUSTACE ALOE. One of the unidentified Aloes that caught your eye caught my eye too while I was down in San Diego. Took my chances and brought it home. I did a bit of research to ID and I suspected that it is Aloe barberae without getting close to make good comparison. In the meantime, it is staying in a pot until I know for sure. Any idea?

  5. I asked if they should dead head that Dudleya. He said yes but they just haven't have time or manpower yet. And I am with Laura in that I wanted one of those Mustache aloe. Super post with amazing photos!

  6. What a treat! I never saw Aloe suprafoliata before. I'll have to look into their availability over here. So welwitschia mirabilis was voted ugliest plant by the Telegraph was it? I suppose those who voted mean ugly in a bad way.

    Screw those guys.

  7. Hi~ I wanna buy a welwitschia mirabilis plant, but I don't know where to buy, Can anyone please tell me where I can get a welwitschia mirabilis plant? Thank you so much!!!!

    1. Wesley, I don't know if the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory can help you, but you can contact them here: http://greenhouse.ucdavis.edu/conservatory/contact.html


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