Succulent Shangri-La: Rancho Soledad Nursery (part 1)

When I was in San Diego in March, I finally got the chance to visit a place I had always pictured as the nursery equivalent of Shangri-La: Rancho Soledad Nursery. Founded by legendary plantsman Jerry Hunter in 1954, Rancho Soledad has been a pioneering force in the California nursery industry for decades. Rancho Soledad was one of the first nurseries in the world to establish its own in-house tissue culture lab to produce landscape-worthy plants on a large scale. Popular agave hybrids like 'Blue Glow' and 'Blue Flame' are just two of the many introductions to come out of Rancho Soledad.

Much of Rancho Soledad's groundbreaking work in the last 20 years was done by Kelly Griffin, who is now succulent plant development manager at Altman Plants, the largest grower of succulents in the U.S. Even though Griffin is no longer with Rancho Soledad, their hybridizing program is continuing strong, thanks in no small measure to curator Jeremy Spath. With his far-ranging knowledge and practical experience, Spath is considered a leading expert on agaves. Based on the glimpses I got on my visit, I have no doubt that Rancho Soledad will continue to bring us exciting new agaves in the years to come.

Rancho Soledad Nursery is located in northern San Diego County outside the small town of Rancho Santa Fe, about 10 miles inland from the coast. The sprawling 25-acre nursery is at the end of Aliso Canyon Road in a rural area increasingly dominated by multi-million-dollar houses on large lots. Hey, for a cool $18 million you can buy this 12,400 sq.ft. house with 7 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms five miles away; the estimated mortgage is only $73,000 a month! I bet this part of San Diego County looked very different when Jerry Hunter bought the property in 1960.

I visited Rancho Soledad on a Saturday morning in late March accompanied by fellow succulent fanatics Deana and Sarah from Santa Barbara. I don't think the nursery gets a lot of casual walk-in traffic, considering where it's located; most customers seem to be landscaping professionals who buy plants for their own clients. We parked at the public sales area near the main entrance (here's a map for orientation). In the panorama below, you see the landscape design and consulting office straight ahead:

Several plants caught my eye right away:

Agave attenuata × Agave mitis var. albidior

Variegated Agave 'Blue Flame'

Variegated Agave ovatifolia, one of the Holy Grail plants among agave fanatics. Often referred to as "Orca," I don't know what Rancho Soledad's final cultivar name will be. What I do know is that it's one pricy puppy. The smallest (5-inch, I believe) was over $300. A 24-inch box would be several thousand $.

Any guesses here?

The small display garden next to the parking lot was full of droolworthy plants:

Another Holy Grail agave: Agave victoria-reginae 'Albomarginata' aka 'White Rhino' or 'Snow Princess'

Elephant's foot (Dioscorea elephantipes) isn't rare in small sizes, but one like this is decades old and much sought after

Variegated Agave ovatifolia

Agave impressa

Agave 'Snow Glow' (Rancho Soledad refers to it as "variegated 'Blue Glow'")

Agave 'Snow Glow'

Great colors

White Dyckia hybrid with who-knows-what (Pachysedum? Pachyphytum?)

One of Jeremy Spath's agave hybrids: Agave gypsophila × utahensis var. nevadensis

Agave 'Blue Flame' with streaked variegation

Streaked aloe, no idea what it is

But that was just the beginning. Deana, Sarah and I chatted for a while with Hunter May, Jerry Hunter's grandson who now runs Rancho Soledad with his mother Heather May (Jerry Hunter passed away in 2012), and then we went exploring. What I loved about this nursery is that we were free to roam the grounds. Remember, it's 25 acres, so there's a lot to see! We didn't quite cover everything but that's OK; that way I have something to look forward to on my next visit.

I took 250 photos and even after some judicious editing I still ended up with far too many for a single post. Part 1 (this post) covers the display garden at the parking lot, the hill beyond (an area featuring mature specimens of aloes and agaves), as well as the areas near the hoop and shade houses. Part 2 covers the rest.

View of specimen-sized cycads

Check out this tree aloe (Aloidendron barberae). It's in a 24-inch box, but the box looks so small because the aloe is so tall!

Cycad seedlings

One of the most beautiful agaves in my book: Agave angustifolia 'Woodrowii' (or 'Milky Way')

Agave chazaroi, truly elegant but not completely hardy in my zone 9b climate

Agave gypsophila × utahensis var. nevadensis, a Jeremy Spath hybrid

Agave potatorum hybrid by Jeremy Spath

Did a deer take a nibble?

Be still, my heart

Aloe suzannae from Madagascar, fairly rare in cultivation

Agave ovatifolia

I have no idea what this is, but it looks like an ultra-wavy 'Blue Flame'

Another variegated Agave ovatifolia

Lots and lots of variegated Agave ovatifolia...

...literally worth their weight in gold

Variegated umbrella plant (Schefflera actinophylla), I think

View of the display garden and parking lot from the Hill

Boxed Agave guiengola

No clue which aloe species this is, but it has character

Aloidendron 'Hercules' and a field of Agave 'Blue Glow'

Yucca rostrata and Euphorbia grandicornis (or similar)

Could these be boojum trees (Fouquieria columnaris)?

More variegated Agave ovatifolia

Check out those massive euphorbias in the back!

Crown of thorns (Euphorbia millii), clearly a very popular landscaping plant in Southern California

Hechtia glauca, looking a lot like mine, brown leaf tips and all

Jade plant (Crassula ovata) growing in a crack in the rock

Lantana almost covering this euphorbia clump

The tree on the right is Euphorbia tirucalli, the all-green version of the popular 'Sticks on Fire'

Agave 'Blue Glow' and Agave guiengola 'Creme Brulee'

Variegated Yucca gloriosa and...

...cactus cuttings resting on a bed of aloes

Aloe vaotsanda

Aloe vaotsanda

Dyckia 'Brittlestar'

Agave ovatifolia, not variegated for a change

Reminder that it's a working nursery!

Glimpse of the hills beyond, dotted with expensive homes

More Euphorbia millii

Bougainvilleas may be dirt common in Southern California, but they're special to me

Not sure which aloe this is

Finally, a label! It says "Aloe bainesii Medusa," which would make it the form of Aloidendron barberae sometimes referred to as 'Medusa'. Other nurseries sell it as "Aloe tongaensis."

A sight that stopped Deana and me dead in our tracks: Aloidendron dichotomum seeming to grow straight out of the rock. We later found out that a hole was carved out of the rock when these were planted. Somehow the roots have managed to cling tight to the rock to support the weight of these massive tree aloes.

I have no idea if the cactus was planted there or sprouted from a seed

Oh, to have one of these in my own garden...

Any Senecio experts out there? The leaves are similar to Senecio barbertonicus...

...but the flowers aren't

The covered area is home to the specimen cycads

Click here to go to part 2.

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  1. Okay, that's now officially on my list as a stop next time I get down San Diego way. I was entranced by 'Orca' until you mentioned its price - I hope I live long enough to see that price come down out of the stratosphere.

    1. I know the variegated Agave ovatifolia will come in price. I bet 'Blue Glow' was super expensive, too, when it first came out...

  2. Oh my, I need to get back there as soon as the weather cools down.

    "Any guesses here?" looks like A. sabea, one I've wanted for a while. The ultra-wavy 'Blue Flame' looks like a hybrid with...mitis, maybe? little teeth on the margins...

    Looking forward to the next post!

    1. I thought of Aloe sabaea, too, but for some reason I thought sabaea flowers were more on the orange side. But I bet that's what it is, considering they have sabaeae in their availability list (in various sizes if you're interested).

  3. (sorry if this is multipost) - Agave angustifolia 'Woodrowii' Is that a common look for it or is that just extreme variegation? It's incredible looking. I checked ebay for that variegated a.ovatifolia and WOW! I thought the white rhinos were crazy. That's just... wow.

    1. Yes, 'Woodrowii' is basically just an extremely variegated form of Agave angustifolia 'Marginata'. There's a bit more info on the San Marcos Growers website.

  4. AMAZING!! What a great tour of a place I've wondered so much about. Do you know if the larger Aloidendron pictured in the background of the rock perched Dichotomum are of the Hercules variety?

    1. Mario, I think it's just a large A. dichotomum. Although there are plenty of photos of 'Hercules' on the web that look like that (maybe misidentified)? It seems that 'Hercules' has wider leaves than dichotomum.

  5. Must wipe the drool off of my keyboard. What an incredible nursery and so many amazing plants. Variegated Agave ovatifolia is glorious but, like Wil O, I looked at ebay and couldn't believe the price. Hopefully it will come down over time. That house is huge; could you imagine keeping it clean? Really 14 bathrooms? I seem to be about 18 million short this month so won't be buying anything like that soon. Looking forward to your next post about Rancho Soledad Nursery!

    1. Ha ha, we should go in together and buy that mansion as a vacation place. Although I fear that even with our pooled resources we could only afford the pool house.

  6. WOW! So I wonder what kind of security they have? It would seem with an inventory that valuable they'd have to keep the nighttime thieves away.

    Do you have any idea if the variegation reduces the hardiness of Agave ovatifolia? And oh how I would love to grow a tree Aloe...

    1. Good point about the security! I didn't notice anything in particular, but I wasn't look.

      I don't know about the hardiness of the variegated ovatifolia. Often variegated plants are a bit less hardy.

  7. Amazing place. I don't think any of those are in the UK yet.

  8. Well,I sure missed the boat on this one. I'm going to have to organize myself another San Diego trip. Back in the 70's there were several growers in Rancho Santa Fe. It was still the high-rent district but not as developed. Most of those growers are long gone, probably having made a killing selling their real estate.

  9. How is it that every succulent nursery visit post you write is not to be missed, full of such wonderful imagery? Just beautiful!

    1. I think I've only scratched the surface of what there is to see in San Diego County. It really is the epicenter of succulent cultivation in the country.


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