Quick tour of the San Diego Botanic Garden

At 37 acres, the San Diego Botanic Garden (SDBG) isn’t immense but it still takes time to explore the 30+ distinct gardens that are accessible via four miles of trails. Since we only had half a day, we had to prioritize and ended up skipping the areas that weren’t that compelling to us (like the Lawn Garden, Mediterranean Garden, Herb Garden, Native Plants and Native People trail, etc.). Still, I ended up with a lot of photos I want to share with you. Today’s post covers everything we saw minus the Bamboo Garden; the Bamboo Garden was so special that I have a separate post about it.


Known until 2009 as Quail Botanical Gardens, the San Diego Botanic Garden is located on the former estate of Ruth and Charles Larabee, both heirs to considerable fortunes. Ruth donated the land to San Diego in 1957, paving the way for the creation of the garden we know today. Until 1993 the garden was supported by San Diego County; since then it has been privately managed by a non-profit foundation.


A very large Kalanchoe beharensis at the entrance kiosk

We started our tour in the Australian Garden right off the parking lot and worked our way counterclockwise. As you can see from this map, there are trails crisscrossing the garden, and I must admit we weren’t always sure where we were, at least temporarily. But the garden isn’t large enough to truly get lost, so we eventually ended up back on track.


Snow in summer (Melaleuca linarifolia), named after the showy flowers that appear in the summer


Many public gardens seem to feature for-sale art these days. The San Diego Botanic Garden is no exception. For a mere $23,846 plus sales tax you can take home this steel, copper and concrete sculpture by Robert Michael Jones called “Liberty.” I found it quite fascinating.


Macrozamia moorei, one of the largest cycads native to Australia (up to 12 ft. in height)


Callistemon ‘Kings Park Special’, a tree-sized bottlebrush hybrid originally discovered at Kings Park and Botanic Gardens in Perth, West Australia. The specimen at the SDBG was loaded with bright red inflorescences.

Now we’re entering the South African Garden. Although it’s fairly small, I found quite a few interesting things to photograph.


Giant bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) with an Aloe thraskii for comparison

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LEFT: The same plants from a different angle  RIGHT: Flowering Aloe plicatilis in front of a misplaced Agave shawii (it’s native to southern San Diego County and northern Baja California, not South Africa)


Encephalartos paucidentatus, a showy South African cycad


Encephalartos paucidentatus and the leaves of Brunsvigia josephinae, a flowering bulb


Aloe peglerae


Unlabeled aloe. I’m including it because it looks like a plant in my garden would: covered with debris from trees and shrubs

The area we visited next is called California Gardenscapes, which technically showcases “the beauty and water smart value of our California native plants” (source). That’s where I photographed the next three plants (which are native to Mexico):


Agave guiengola


Agave mitis (formerly known as Agave celsii)


Pedilanthus sp. (I can’t tell if it’s macrocarpus or bracteatus)

Now we’ve arrived in the Hamilton Children’s Garden, probably the largest garden at the SDBG. To be honest, I didn’t pay that much attention to the all the activities available to children, but it’s a beautiful spot full of interesting plants from all over the world. This would have been a great place to enjoy an iced coffee beverage but unfortunately, they don’t have a café.


Hamilton Children’s Garden

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LEFT: Weeping bottlebrush  RIGHT: South African daisies (Arctotis hybrid)

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More South African daisies

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LEFT: Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa) RIGHT: Dragon tree (Dracaena draco)


Two varieties of Agave attenuata: ‘Boutin Blue’ on the left, and the straight species on the right


Orange clock vine (Thunbergia gregorii)


A forest of ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata), looking like they came straight out of a Dr Seuss book


Silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae)


Athanasia pinnata

Leaving behind the Hamilton Children’s Garden, we saw what ended up being my favorite sculpture:



Yes, it’s for sale

Two photos from the South American Desert Garden where it transitions into the Tropical Rain Forest:


Does anybody know what this might be?


South African coral tree (Erythrina caffra), not sure why it’s in the South American section but I assume it was here when the various gardens were created

The Tropical Rain Forest is very small. It takes you literally a minute to walk through it. I imagine it’s quite challenging maintaining such a water-intensive environment in what is essentially a desert climate.


Bird’s nest fern (Asplenius sp.)


Fishtail palm (Caryota sp., possibly gigas)

A few snaps from along the path to the Plant and Gift Shop:


Furcraea foetida 'Mediopicta'


Dinner plate aeonium (Aeonium urbicum)

The New World Desert Garden above the parking lot showcases a small cross-section of agaves, cacti, yuccas and other succulents from the Americas. I only took a couple of photos here.


Unlabeled, but possibly Yucca schidigera


I did drool over this trunked Yucca rostrata


Unlabeled giant agave, most likely Agave americana

The Old World Desert Garden nearby is even smaller but it does have a nice dragon tree (Dracaena draco):


Dragon tree (Dracaena draco)

The Mexican Garden focuses on the “rich botanical heritage of Mexico including agaves, salvias, and cycads” (source).


Here are some plants that caught my eye:

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LEFT: Variegated ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata ‘Variegata’) and Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’   RIGHT: Variegated foxtail agave (Agave attenuata ‘Variegata’)


Variegated foxtail agave (Agave attenuata ‘Variegata’), rare and highly sought after by collectors

Botanically speaking, the next plant was the biggest surprise for me at the SDBG:


I had never seen anything like it before. It’s a daisy tree (Podachaenium eminens), and it is indeed a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae). This denizen of the cloud forests of Mexico and Central America can grow to 25 ft., with leaves up to 2 feet across and flower clusters up to 18 inches wide. It was simply a magnificent sight.



Equally fascinating were the succulent topiaries. There are seven of them: a waiter and waitress; a dancing couple; and a three-member mariachi band. Apparently, the faces of all seven figures are clay masks made by a local artist of real people (source).

I can see why some of you might think these figures are creepy—the faces do look a bit like death masks—but I was spellbound. I could have spent an hour photographing them from all angles. The succulent cuttings in the wire frames were immaculate.

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A bit of background information about these topiaries:


My next post will be about the bamboos at the San Diego Botanic Garden. It’ll be a visual treat even for folks who don’t much care about bamboo, or are bamboo agnostics.

Related posts

2015 Spring break trip to San Diego


  1. How did I not know that there is a blue Agave attenuata?! Another one for my list. Thanks for sharing your visit. I find those mariachi topiaries fascinating as well.

    1. Yes, 'Boutin Blue' is much bluer than the species. It's sometimes sold as 'Nova'. I saw it at Seaside Gardens in Carpinteria recently.

  2. Athanasia pinnata. Very attractive plant, thanks for the introduction.

    1. It might be easier to find in SoCal nurseries. I got a small plant at Annie's Annuals.

  3. Great photos Gerhard, I'm glad I'm not alone in having become a little disoriented along the way. Did you make it down to the undersea garden? I'm sure Alan will be happy to learn you paid proper attention to the bamboo garden!

    1. For lack of time, we didn't make it to the lower part of the garden where the Undersea Succulent Garden is. Next visit!

      I must admit I spent more time in the Bamboo Garden than I had planned :-).

  4. Love the ponytail palms! I was there a couple summer's ago and still haven't gotten around to the blog! lol

  5. These photos are amazing. They really capture the grandeur of the Garden. Thank you for sharing!! Check out San Diego Botanic Garden's Calendar Photo Contest. http://www.sdbgarden.org/calendar.htm


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