Succulent wonderland at Newport Beach Civic Center

Completed in 2013, the Civic Center in the Southern California coastal city of Newport Beach has become a word-of-mouth destination for succulent enthusiasts. It's easy to see why:

Newport Beach Civic Center along Avocado Avenue

The complex, which houses Newport Beach city hall and the central library, is architecturally stunning. It's adjoined by 14 acres of parks and gardens transected by 1.25 miles of walking trails. The $140 million price tag is hefty, but no corners were cut—and that applies to the outside areas as well. That in itself is very gratifying since landscaping, which is usually the last major element to be installed in a project, often gets the short end of the stick, especially when there are budget overruns.

The landscape design was created 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 gets even indifferent and incurious passers-by to take a second look.

Mass plantings of Agave americana

Mass-planted, almost anything looks good. That's definitely true for Agave americana, a sight so common in the warmer regions of California that many people assume it's a native plant. Agave americana is an easy grower and offsets liberally. Without regular maintenance, though, it can turn into a hideous tangle. In contrast, the plantings at the Newport Beach Civic Center show how attractive it can be with proper care. 

As you will see in later photos, there are literally thousands of Agave  americana. In fact, the entire property is lined with them along Avocado Avenue, each plant carefully trimmed. Keeping them looking neat requires work, but which landscaping is completely maintenance-free? In addition, since there's a never-ending supply of pups, replacing plants—or extending the plantings—doesn't cost anything. (I'm surprising myself, saying all these positive things about an agave species I'm generally not fond of!) 

RIGHT: Dragon tree (Dracaena draco) from the Canary Islands

Ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata), not palms at all but caudiciform succulents from southeastern Mexico

Closer-up view of the Desert Garden

The Desert Garden has three main sections: North Africa, South Africa, and American Desert Plants (photo above). There's no strict separation, as you can see in the photo below where tree aloes from South Africa mix with cactus and puyas from South America. Aesthetics is more important here than geographic delineation—after all, this is commercial landscaping, not a botanical garden.

Puya venusta and Cleistocactus strausii

Click photo to read about the Desert Garden

Agave franzosinii and Agave 'Blue Glow'

Agave franzosinii and Agave 'Blue Glow'

Many of the Agave 'Blue Glow' at the Newport Beach Civic Center have started to bloom, but the landscapers have cut off the emerging stalk, maybe in an effort to forestall flowering and hence certain death? 

As a result, masses of pups have started to emerge from the center

Mexican fence post cactus (Pachycereus marginatus), Agave franzosinii and Agave 'Blue Glow'

Agave attenuata 'Boutin Blue'

Agave attenuata 'Boutin Blue'

Agave parryi var. truncata and Aeonium 'Zwartkop'

Agave parryi var. truncata and Aeonium 'Zwartkop'

Agave parryi var. truncata and Agave victoria-reginae

Agave parryi var. truncata and Agave victoria-reginae

BACK: Aloidendron barberae   FRONT: Dracaena draco and Euphorbia resinifera (these two are the only species in the North Africa Garden)

These tree aloes (Aloidendron barberae) look spectacular against the modern architecture

Aloidendron barberae and Cotyledon orbiculata

Aloidendron barberae

Aloidendron barberae

Dracaena draco

Dracaena draco and Euphorbia resinifera

Dracaena draco in flower

Euphorbia resinifera
One last look at the tree aloes

The Palm Garden near the entrance to the parking garage features Mexican cycads (Dioon spinulosum), Mediterranean fan palms (Chamaerops humilis), and Bismarck palms (Bismarckia nobilis):

Dioons in a sea of licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare)

The upper part of Civic Center Park contains a number of sculptures. Some are permanent, others are rotating. The best known (and, depending on your perspective, best loved, most derided and/or most hated) are 16 concrete bunnies. Two are extra large (8 feet tall)...

8-foot concrete cottontail bunny

...the other 14 are smaller, installed in a circle in the upper portion of the park. Locals refer to them as “Bunny Henge:”

The Bunny Henge bunnies are actually meant for kids to climb and sit on

They've become a social media attraction...

...leading to all kinds of photo shoots (note the woman inside the circle is wearing a carrot necklace)

Civic Center and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. This is the view from the observation platform on the pedestrian overpass spanning San Miguel Avenue.

Ivan McLean, Sphere 112

Agave americana plantings along Avocado Avenue in the upper part of Civic Center Park

Craig Gray, Slices of Heaven

Arctostaphylos manzanita 'Dr Hurd' and Agave americana

A nice place to sit right along busy Avocado Avenue

Back to Agave americana, here's a example of how neatly trimmed most of them are:

However, planting Agave americana so close to utility pipes and valves is not a good idea:

The official address of the Newport Beach Civic Center is 100 Civic Center Drive. It's less than a mile from the Fashion Island Mall (a good place to drop off family members not interested in plants) and less than a mile from two places of interest to plant lovers: Roger's Garden (a high-end nursery with its own restaurant), and Sherman Library and Gardens (home of Matt Maggio's much-photographed succulent mosaic).


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  1. It's so great to see such interesting and unusual architecture paired with such imaginative and quirky landscaping. Both are superb together. I love the combination of the Aloidendron, Draceana and Euphorbia. Such a great demonstration of differing heights and textures. A Bunnicula of that size in my garden would strike fear into my heart!

  2. Bunzilla!

    Great wide-shot photos that show the design of the place really well.

    Interesting how some plants have done well, like Euphorbia resinifera, while others have vanished. There was a whole row of Aloe thraskii along the wall near the A. barberaes--all of them now gone. Wonder what happened--rot? Also there was a whole group of fabulous Alcantarea imperialis near the windows in photo #6--also gone. Several Kumara plicatilis specimens gone as well?

    On the other hand, the Bismarkias look breathtaking.

  3. I'm sorry to admit that, despite my relative proximity to Newport Beach and my regular trips to Rogers, I'm never given the Civic Center's installation more than a cursory scan. I love the Agave parryi-Aeonium 'Zwartkop' combination. I was intrigued by the pupping resulting from cutting 'Blue Glow's' bloom stalk too - I planted a dozen 'Blue Glows' years ago and live in fear that they'll all bloom at once. As pups are usually rare with that species, at least in my experience, having a strategy to replace those I lose would be helpful.

  4. Not much better than pairing great architecture with great plantings !


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