The Desert Garden in Balboa Park

Spread out over 1,200 acres, San Diego’s Balboa Park is the largest urban park in the country—1½ times the size of New York’s Central Park. It’s also one of the oldest, created in 1868. The Spanish Baroque and Mission Revival Style buildings that are now the hallmark of Balboa Park were constructed for the Panama–California Exposition that opened in 1915 and ran until 1917.


Casa del Prado with typical Churrigueresque ornamentation

Today, Balboa Park is home to the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, 17 museums, 16 gardens, and a number of other attractions and venues.

Botanically and horticulturally, Balboa Park wouldn’t be what it is today without Kate Sessions (1857-1940). Known as the “Mother of Balboa Park,” she was given 30 acres within the park in 1892 for use as a nursery. In return she agreed to plant 100 trees a year in the park and 300 trees elsewhere in San Diego. She introduced many exotic trees from around the world, which she grew from seed in her own garden. One of these is the jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia), now found all over the city.

Sadly, our time in Balboa Park was limited so I could only choose one of the larger gardens to visit. Not surprisingly, I picked the Desert Garden, which Danger Garden had blogged about recently. It’s located at the eastern edge of Balboa Park, separated from the rest of the park by a pedestrian bridge over busy Park Blvd. (the remain access road to the San Diego Zoo). The 2½-acre Desert Garden was created in the 1970s. It shouldn’t be confused with the Old Cactus Garden in the main part of the park, which was created by Kate Sessions for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to check out the Old Cactus Garden, but according to Danger Garden’s post here it’s well worth seeing.


Spring color on the east-facing slope

As you would expect, the Desert Garden is in an open and sunny position. In fact, during the day of my visit (Tuesday afternoon of last week), I was feeling uncomfortably warm as the sun was beating down on me. I saw no signs of irrigation, which makes me believe the plants are left to their own devices to survive. Make no mistake about it, San Diego is an arid place. With an average annual precipitation of under 12 inches (300 mm) and a Mediterranean climate where virtually all of the rain falls between October and May, this is no walk in the park (pardon the pun) even for xeric plants.

After reading Danger Garden’s posts I knew there was a lot of plant graffiti in the park, but it was still shocking to see it in person.


Prickly pear (Opuntia sp.)


Agave attenuata


Euphorbia ingens

It’s clear the warning signs don’t do much good. That’s the downside of a park that’s open around the clock.


In order to enjoy my visit, I decided not to dwell on the vandalized plants and look for the beauty around me instead. Here’s what I saw.


Aloe thraskii


Agave attenuata


This part of the Desert Garden (facing east and overlooking Florida Drive) is particularly naturalistic—and stark


Agave parryi and Senecio serpens


Agave guadalajarana


Agave tequilana ‘Tequila Sunrise’


Agave salmiana


Quiver tree (Aloidendron dichotomum)


Quiver tree (Aloidendron dichotomum)


Flowering palo verde (Parkinsonia sp.) and Opuntia robusta


Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia)


Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia)


Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia)


Monstrose Peruvian apple cactus (Cereus repandus f. monstrosus)


Flowering octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana)


Cascalote tree (Caesalpinia cacalaco)


Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris)


Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris)


Furcraea macdougallii


Euphorbia ammak


Euphorbia ingens and Aloe marlothii


Euphorbia ingens, weeping form


Pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli), the all-green brother of the much-loved ‘Sticks on Fire’. Yes, it will grow to tree size in the right climate.


Euphorbia grandicornis

The light was harsh and contrasty, which made photography challenging. I was wishing for high overcast, but with 260+ sunny days a year that’s too much to expect in San Diego in the spring and summer.

The Desert Garden in Balboa Park isn’t a botanical garden per se (very few plants are labeled, for instance) and it can’t compete in size and variety with, say, the Huntington Desert Garden in Pasadena, CA or the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ. But it’s still a wonderful addition to the cultural and recreational treasure that is Balboa Park.

Related posts

2015 Spring break trip to San Diego

The Desert Garden at Balboa Park (Danger Garden)


  1. Yep, best to focus on beauties than graffitis! It seems you need 2-3 days to explore all of Balboa Park?

    1. I'd say two days would be good, especially if you want to see any of the museums and/or the zoo.

  2. I think the Aloe is thraskii. they bloom young.

    It looks like there are some nice plants there despite all the damage. I need to look around there more the next CSS show--but it was roasting hot last visit. Good photos, despite the harsh light.

    1. Thanks! A. thraskii sounds right. I've changed the caption above.

      It was hot when I was there, I can only imagine how hot it must be later in the year.

  3. A wonderful visit! The damage is certainly disheartening, but there is so much beauty all around to distract. As always you got a lot of great images.


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