Succulent perfection at the Newport Beach Civic Center Desert Garden

The first time I read about the Newport Beach Civic Center was in this October 2014 post on Piece of Eden. The $140 million complex took three years to complete and opened in April 2013. It houses Newport Beach City Hall and the Central Library and is surrounded by 16 acres of parks and gardens, including the Coastal Sage Scrub Garden, the Torrey Pine Grove and—of particular interest to me—the Desert Garden.

On our recent trip to Southern California to tour university campuses with daughter #2, I had the opportunity to visit the Newport Beach Civic Center on an early morning outing. I found a parking space right at the entrance to the parking lot and only encountered a couple of other people as I was walking around.

A mass planting of Agave attenuata against the north wall of City Hall sets the stage:

 Agave attenuata maybe common as dirt in Southern California, but there's no denying it's a beauty.

From the sidewalk I got my first complete view of City Hall, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.

The landscape design was done by Berkeley-based  PWP Landscape Architecture whose projects are found all over the world, including Jewel Changi Airport in Shanghai, the National September 11 Memorial in New York, and the Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore. With their extensive experience and a generous $15 million budget, PWP created the kind of high-impact public landscaping that elicits wows even from jaded armchair critics

The hellstrip along Avocado Avenue features a simple, yet elegant blue-gray scheme of Agave americana and Senecio mandraliscae:

Rounding the corner, you get your first view of the Desert Garden. It has three main sections: North Africa (below), South Africa, and American Desert Plants. 

Instead of going with a large variety of plants, PWP opted for a small palette and plant in multiples. The North Africa section features only two species: resin spurge (Euphorbia resinifera) and dragon tree (Dracaena draco):

The South Africa section contains aloes large and small as well as groundcovers like Cotyledon orbiculata:

To nobody's surprise, the tree aloes (Aloidendron barberae) attract the most attention: 

I had an hour to spend and thought that was more than enough time to walk around the other gardens as well. How wrong I was—I spent all my time in the Desert Garden. 

The tree aloes against the ocean-wave roof sections of the Central Library make for a truly iconic sight. The fact that such a gobsmackingly stunning building houses a library (books! yes, books! people still read them!) makes it even sweeter.

Click the small image below to read more about the signature plants featured in the Desert Garden:

Aeoniums are from the Canary Islands off the coast of northwestern Africa. In the Desert Garden, they're planted close to the building where the deep overhang from the roof gives them some protection from the sun.

The deep purple aeoniums (my guess is 'Zwartkop') contrast beautifully with the steely blue Agave attenuata 'Boutin Blue':

Other agaves include Agave franzosinii, Agave 'Blue Glow', Agave paryii var. truncata, and Agave victoria-reginae:

The columnar cactus is Mexican fencepost (Pachycereus marginatus):

Agave parryi var. truncata and Agave victoria-reginae:

Agave franzosinii and Agave 'Blue Glow':

Many Agave 'Blue Glow' of a certain age (7 or 8 years) are starting to flower. In an effort to delay or stop the flowering, the gardeners at the Newport Beach Civic Center have removed the emerging flower stalk. I don't think this really works, but who knows...

A wider view of the Mexican fencepost cactus:

A nicely branched Aloidendron barberae underplanted with Agave parryi var. truncata and Aeonium 'Zwartkop':

Silvertorch cactus (Cleistocactus strausii) and Agave attenuata 'Boutin Blue':

Like all Agave attenuata, 'Boutin Blue' eventually forms a short trunk:

A relatively surprising discovery was Puya venusta, a terrestrial bromeliad from Chile:

I even found one with a flower stalk:

Even more spectacular is Puya alpestris:

Orange-flowering dyckia (not sure which species or hybrid):

Tree aloes silhouetted against the morning sky:

View of the tree aloes from the passageway between the Central Library and City Hall:

Back in the North Africa section with Dracaena draco and Euphorbia resinifera:

Euphorbia resinifera:

Dracaena draco:

Dracaena draco and Aloidendron barberae:

Ocean-wave roofline of the Central Library:

A few more photos of the South and North Africa sections of the Desert Garden against the curving panel on the south side of City Hall that resembles a cresting wave:

Newport Beach is a wealthy community (the average home price is $2.1 million), and I'm happy to see that they didn't skimp on the landscaping at the Civic Center. 

© Gerhard Bock, 2018. No part of the materials available through may be copied, photocopied, reproduced, translated or reduced to any electronic medium or machine-readable form, in whole or in part, without prior written consent of Gerhard Bock. Any other reproduction in any form without the permission of Gerhard Bock is prohibited. All materials contained on this site are protected by  United States and international copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Gerhard Bock. If you are reading this post on a website other than, please be advised that that site is using my content without my permission. Any unauthorized use will be reported.


  1. I am really sorry I failed to stop in here when I was down in OC in March. One can imagine how this would have been plantedif it were built 20 years ago -heavy on the tropicals !

  2. Wow, I didn't know they had Puya alpestris. And you caught it in bloom yet!

  3. Crazy fabulous plantings! Maybe they realize cutting the bloom stalk doesn’t stop the downward death spiral but just want to keep things tidy until they have a chance to replant the dying Agaves? Just an idea... (because who could actually believe it would save the plant?...)

  4. so love that they mass planted Euphorb resinifera! Maybe I'm wrong, but that dyckia looks spineless -- could it be 'Naked Lady'?

  5. That Puya foliage does look like 'Naked Lady', but my own plants have yet to bloom.

  6. Looks like you had a blast taking photos. There's a great shot from every angle there. Viewing the shots of Aloe barbarae I wonder if 'Hercules' will open up like that eventually.

    I think I read the white panel is to evoke the sail on a sailboat. It was in one of the articles in which NB residents complained about how much money was spent on the Civic Center complex. To me it was money well spent, and they are not short of $$$.

    Fifth picture from the bottom, looks like they replaced a whole section of bromeliads and non-armed Dyckias with a crappy lawn????--I'll have to go look at that.

  7. We are going to go see that in 2 weeks! I'm very excited, Gerhard!


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