South African splendor at UC Santa Cruz Arboretum (summer 2016 edition)

Noël Coward once suggested than only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Something similar could be said for plant geeks who visit botanical gardens at the height of summer. I'm definitely one of them. And I'm not even slightly bothered by the fact that some people might consider us crazy.

Case in point: Last Saturday I left Davis before 7:00 a.m. to make the 2 hr. 15 min. drive to Santa Cruz, one of my favorite places on the California coast. My destination wasn't the beach though, it was the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Arboretum. I hadn't been there since November 2012—almost four years ago—and I felt the urge to find out what might be in bloom in the middle of the summer.


Protea repens ‘Rubens’

In their own words, 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.” In particular, I was looking forward to seeing what their many Proteacea (proteas, leucadendrons, leucospermums, grevilleas, banksias, etc.) would be like at a time of year when many gardens struggle under the heat and lack of water.


Protea repens ‘Rubens’

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

There are 80+ photos in this post. I know it’s a bit self-indulgent but there are so many beautiful plants I want to show you. I considered grouping them by genus but instead I’ll let you experience them in the random way I encountered them. That makes the discovery even more enjoyable.


Protea repens ‘Rubens’

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.


Protea repens ‘Rubens’

The flowers above are from this Protea repens ‘Rubens’ growing right at the entrance to the South African Garden:


Protea repens ‘Rubens’

While many sugarbushes (Protea sp.) were not in bloom, a few (mostly Protea repens cultivars) were.


Protea neriifolia

But a lack of fresh flowers doesn’t mean they were boring. Quite the opposite. The remains of last year’s flowers were beautiful in their own way.






And what would summer be without spider webs!


Most proteas were in an active growth phase. Maybe I’ll get a chance to visit again in the fall or winter when they will be in flower.


Protea ‘Pink Ice’


Protea ‘Pink Ice’


Protea ‘Pink Ice’

One of the biggest surprises were the conebushes (Leucadendron sp.). I had not expected them to be so vibrant at this time of year. Winter, yes. Summer, no. But I was wrong.


Most of the conebushes weren’t labeled but many are either Leucadendron salignum or L. salignum cultivars or hybrids (such as ‘Winter Red’ or ‘Safari Sunset’)



Even dead branches looked cool:



OK, a few more:






Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunshine’ (aka ‘Jester’)


Leucadendron sessile


Leucadendron muirii


Leucadendron muirii

And a few more sugarbushes:


Protea repens ‘Summer Pink’


Protea repens ‘Summer Pink’


Protea repens ‘Summer Pink’

Back to the conebushes. The largest, and arguably most striking, species is Leucadendron argenteum, the fabled silvertree. Endemic only to a small area outside of Cape Town, South Africa, it can grow to 25 ft. in suitable climates. However, it is relatively short lived as far as trees go, with a natural life span of no more than 20 years. The UCSC Arboretum has several juveniles and one in the 20-ft. range.



Yes, the leaves really are that soft




Right next to the tall Leucadendron argenteum above is an unlabeled pincushion (Leucospermum sp.) that to me has the nicest looking leaves of any in the genus. They make the shrub attractive enough to stand on its own—even without the flowers which are usually the main reason for growing pincushions.




Most pincushions weren’t in bloom but I found a few here and there that still had some flowers:



Leucospermum erubescens


Leucospermum parile, a true oddity in the genus

The two hybrids below had the best flowers:


Leucospermum glabrum × conocarpodendron. The best known hybrid of this parentage is ‘Veldfire’ (see this stunner I photographed in San Diego County last year).


Leucospermum glabrum × conocarpodendron


Leucospermum glabrum × conocarpodendron


Leucospermum glabrum × conocarpodendron (entire shrub)


Unlabeled pincushion, possibly of Leucospermum glabrum parentage as well


Many heathers (Erica sp.) were blooming profusely. Most weren’t labeled, and since I’m no Erica expert, I don’t really know what they were.


Finally, at the far side of the South African Garden where it abuts the Australian Garden, I found my hands-down favorite conebush: Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunshine’. This variegated sport of ‘Safari Sunset’ (Leucadendron salignum × laureolum) is typically sold under the cultivar name ‘Jester’. From a distance it may look like the common ‘Safari Sunset’ but up close the variegation becomes obvious. It’s a stunner!





Next to ‘Safari Sunshine’ is a mystery shrub with an intricate, lacy branch structure. Like so many plants, it wasn’t labeled. If you know what it is, please leave a comment below.


Time for a few more sugarbushes (Protea sp.):



Protea repens


Protea repens


Protea repens

How about a couple of restios?


Elegia capensis


Elegia capensis

And more heathers! They were blooming profusely.





Here is a South African shrub I’ve been lusting after for a while. It goes by the very appropriate name featherhead (Phylica pubescens). When you see the foliage, you automatically want to touch it. It’s hard to find in nurseries (Norrie’s, the UCSC Arboretum’s gift and plant shop, didn’t have any in stock) but I’m hoping the Ruth Bancroft Garden Nursery will get some in time for the fall planting season.

160813_UCSC_Arboretum_Phyllica-pubescens- -Leucadendron-Wilsons-Wonder_001

Phylica pubescens and Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’

160813_UCSC_Arboretum_Phyllica-pubescens- -Leucadendron-Wilsons-Wonder_002

Phylica pubescens and Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’


Phylica pubescens

Probably the best restio specimens in the entire arboretum are right behind (above) Norrie’s, the above-mentioned gift and plant shop:

160813_UCSC_Arboretum_Elegia-capensis- -Leucadendron-Wilsons-Wonder_001

Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ (front), Elegia capensis (top left), Chondropetalum tectorum (top right)

160813_UCSC_Arboretum_Elegia-capensis- -Leucadendron-Wilsons-Wonder_002

Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ (front), Elegia capensis (top left), Chondropetalum tectorum (top right)


Elegia capensis (left), Chondropetalum tectorum (right)


Elegia capensis (left), Chondropetalum tectorum (right)


Elegia capensis

This is also where I found two of the rarest proteas in the collection, Mimetes cucullatus and Mimetes chrysanthus. They must have been planted in recent years because I don’t remember them from my previous visits.

Mimetes cucullatus is the shrub I went bonkers over at Annie’s Annuals in Richmond last year. I bought a very small (tiny, really) cutting at the time but it didn’t make it; I don’t think it was well rooted. The two specimens at the UCSC Arboretum weren’t blooming, but they were actively growing and looked very healthy.



In contrast, the second mimetes, Mimetes chrysanthus, had quite a few flowers. Not only had I never seen a Mimetes chrysanthus before, I hadn’t even heard of it! Apparently it wasn’t discovered until 1987 and is considered rare in its native habitat on Gamka Mountain in South Africa. I don’t know how challenging it is to grow in California, but I think it would prove to be quite popular if it became more widely available.





20 years ago we got this close to moving to the Santa Cruz area. We had already agreed to rent a house when the deal fell through, literally at the last minute. I often wonder what would have happened if we had moved there. Maybe I would now have my own garden full of these spectacular South African beauties...


Map data © 2016 Google


  1. I had no idea you were so close (relatively speaking) the SC Arboretum...just a couple of hours drive! What a spectacular set of photos, I do hope to visit "someday"...oh and self-indulgent? Not at all. You did it for your readers.

    BTW Phylica pubescens is available at Annie's:

    1. There was virtually no traffic on Saturday morning so I got there in record time. Just a little over two hours. Come down for a few days and I'll take you around!

      Thanks for the link to Annie's. Troy at the RBG nursery is already looking for one for me. The plants at Annie's at fairly small.

  2. I've had a chondropetalum in the front garden for at least a decade and it's evolved into a splayed-out growth habit. Might be too much shade. Your photos are a good reminder to check into this. That Mimetes chrysanthus is lovely. It's true about the leucadendrons' beauty in summer -- 'Winter Red' has been ruddy and gorgeous. Making a mental note to visit this fall/winter!

    1. The flopping may be because of too much shade and possibly too much water. But over time they simply get big. You could probably cut it back by half.

      In my garden, Leucadendron 'Safari Sunset' is anything but colorful--just the typical sickly summer green. 'Ebony' looks bleached but 'Jester' looks gorgeous (which is why it's my favorite).

      We should have a mini Fling in Santa Cruz!

  3. I for one, am glad you took so many photos! (Once again, your opening shot looked like a painting to me.) I'd no idea that UCSC had a collection like that and may have to convince my husband that we need to visit our niece in Santa Cruz one day. I was going to let you know that Annie's has the Phylica in stock but Loree beat me to it - time to place an order if you can't get there in person, I think!

    1. I often joke that Santa Cruz is Davis-by-the-Sea. A lot of kids from Davis go to UC Santa Cruz. Heck, who wouldn't?

      Seriously, do try to visit your niece. There's so much to see!

      Do you have a Phylica pubescens? If so, I'd love to know how it's doing.

  4. You're killing me -- so many gorgeous plants that I can't even remotely grow! Great photos of some of the spent flowers and cones (?) too. Then restios -- so envious!

    1. While I can definitely grow more of these plants than you can, I still can't grow the ones I really want. Isn't that how it always goes?

      Maybe we'll find a small house with a big garden somewhere near the coast as a retirement project.

  5. We will be up in that area in October. Based on your photos I think we need to visit the UC Santa Cruz Botanic Garden!

    My Phylica has not died, at least, and seems to be doing okay so far, but I'm not convinced it likes hot weather.

    There's always something we want to grow and can't--it is the fate of gardeners everywhere.

    1. If you get a chance to visit the UCSC Arboretum, I think you would really enjoy it. October is an excellent time, based on my experience (limited as it is).

      I'm trying to get a 1-gallon Phylica pubescens. That way, I'm not out of a lot of money if it dies.

  6. Great tour Gerhard ! It's been a few years since my last visit too-I think I went in February. To this day the photos I took on that visit are amount my favorites I've ever taken. I don't blame you at all for posting 80 photos !

    1. I've only been there in October, November and (now) August. Late winter sounds like a great time to visit.

  7. Oh yum yum yum !!!!! Fantastic! Great tour!

    1. Jane, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. That's why I do these posts.

  8. Love your photos! I especially love the Mimetes chrysanthus which I would love to see in person. Just to let you know your 6th photo down isn't a Protea neriifolia. It may be a fully opened Protea 'Sylvia.'

    1. Thank you, Kell. I've killed two Mimetes cucullatus, but I assume Mimetes chrysanthus is equally challening in Davis (they hate the hot summers).

      Thanks for the corrected ID! You're so good with this!


Post a Comment