Visiting Rancho Soledad Nursery in San Diego County

In September, I had the opportunity to visit Rancho Soledad Nursery in North San Diego County. Founded by legendary plantsman Jerry Hunter in 1954, Rancho Soledad has been a pioneering force in the California nursery industry for over half a century. 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 their many introductions.

Rancho Soledad Nursery is located outside the small town of Rancho Santa Fe, about 10 miles inland from the coast. The sprawling nursery is at the end of Aliso Canyon Road in a rural area increasingly dominated by multi-million-dollar houses on large lots. For a cool $20 million you can buy this 16½ acre ranch three miles away! I bet San Diego County looked very different when Jerry Hunter bought the property in 1960.

I got a personal tour of the nursery grounds by my friend Ryan Penn who now works in propagation and sales at Rancho Soledad. I first met him when he was the horticulturist at the Ruth Bancroft Garden; he later moved to a wholesale succulent nursery in Vista, California, where I caught up with him in November 2018.

Ryan drove me around on an electric cart and showed me parts of the nursery few customers get to see. The map on the Rancho Soledad website makes the nursery seem quite compact. In reality, the grounds occupy 25 acres!

Since Rancho Soledad is primarily a wholesale nursery, most plants aren't labeled; they don't receive labels until they're pulled for an order. I was constantly asking Ryan for IDs as we were driving and walking around, but then I'm big on knowing what everything is. Even so, some photos in the post don't have a plant ID. I guess some things are meant to be a mystery.

My tour started at the Wholesale Office where boxed specimens of succulents, palm trees, cycads, and tropicals get visitors drooling. In fact, I parked right in front of this pair of Agave ovatifolia 'Orca':

Agave ovatifolia 'Orca'

Rancho Soledad is still the only commercial source of Agave ovatifolia 'Orca' that I know. They have lots of them for sale, but even smaller sizes are many hundreds of dollars.

In the next photo, you can barely see the Wholesale Office. There are plants everywhere!

Lepidozamia peroffskyana, a cycad from Australia


Bromeliads, too, like Vriesea (left) and Alcanterea (right)

Random sights from our behind-the-scenes walk:

Dioscorea elephantipes in the ground

Agave guiengola, plain and variegated. Ryan is actively working on planting out as many agave and aloe species as possible, not just to make the place look nice, but also for propagation.

Agave guiengola 'Crème Brûlée'

No clue what this cactus is, but the variegation is beautiful. A collector would display it in a special pot; at Rancho Soledad, it's growing in the ground somewhere in the back forty.

Insane terminal spines!

Aloidendron dichotomum

Agave titanota in danger of being swallowed by a tangle of jade (Crassula ovata)

Agave titanota in front of Euphorbia ammak

Aloe ukambensis

Aloe ukambensis

Native Dudleya, not sure if it's pulverulenta (which grows on hillsides in the area)

Aloe glauca var. spinosior

Aloe glauca var. spinosior

Aloe canarina

Aloidendron barberae





Aloidendron dichotomum

Aloidendron dichotomum. Is it trying to push the rock aside?


If I only knew exactly...

...what they are!

More Agave ovatifolia 'Orca', with 'Blue Glow' in the background

You'd think with so many 'Orca' in existence that...

...prices would come down, but no such luck. Demand must be high.

Furcraea foetida 'Mediopicta'

Agave guiengola land

Agave guiengola 'Crème brûlée' (front) and Agave guiengola 'Platinum' (back)

In-ground Encephalartos

One of my favorite areas at Rancho Soledad is The Hill. At first glance, it may seem like a jumble of spiky plants. Well, it is that, but the plants are choice, and many of them are rare. I believe this area was started by Kelly Griffin during his tenure as curator of xerophytic plants and later continued by Jeremy Spath. Now Ryan has picked up the torch.


Agave potatorum

Agave potatorum

Agave ovatifolia

Agave ovatifolia

Agave guadalajarana

Agave angustifolia with beautiful creamy variegation, sometimes called 'Woodrowii' or 'Milky Way'


Aloe thraskii



Agave kristenii (right: bulbils on the inflorescence)


Just about the most perfect Agave titanota

Ditto

Agave chazaroi

Large aloes for sale:

Aloidendron 'Hercules'

Aloidendron 'Hercules'

Aloidendron 'Hercules'

Aloidendron ramosissimum

Aloidendron ramosissimum

Miscellaneous photos taken while poking around in various greenhouses:

No idea what this is, but the branch structure is fantastic

Variegated Yucca rostrata, the first I've ever seen

Baby Dioscorea elephantipes

Very pretty form of Agave victoria-reginae

Just a few more outside before it was time to leave:

Outside the office of Rancho Tissue Technologies

Variegated Agave 'Blue Flame'

In the small display garden adjacent to the Public Sales Office:

Agave utahensis var. nevadensis × gypsophila

Agave impressa in front of Alluaudia procera

Agave victoria-reginae × ovatifolia

NOID variegated aloe (yes, I want it!)

Public Sales Office

While Rancho Soledad is primarily a wholesale nursery, retail customers are welcome. There's a lot to explore, even if you don't have a personal guide like I did. Location info and hours are on their website.


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Comments

  1. A regular candy store for a plant-o-phile! Love that variegated Blue Glow and the little variegated cactus in the ground. Did you come home with any treasures?

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    1. I got an Aloe ukambensis and just last week an Aloe ferox × capitata hybrid.

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  2. You must have been in heaven. The massive displays of large succulents like Aloidendron 'Hercules' look almost like army squadrons preparing to march. Much as I admire 'Orca', I'm even more captivated by the variegated Agave 'Blue Flame' but I don't imagine that's inexpensive either :(

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    1. I agree with you. If I had a choice, I'd go for the variegated 'Blue Flame' as well. It's not cheap but not too outrageous either: $84.50 for a 3 gallon, according to their online availability list.

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  3. Great visit recap! I wonder why every Agave ovatifolia 'Orca' is mammoth, do they not have any smaller ones? Also that Agave victoria-reginae × ovatifolia is interesting, and a new one for me. I'd love to get my hands on one to plant and see how it does here, since ovatifolia is such a strong plant.

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    1. Rancho Soledad has that victoria reginae x ovatifolia listed in their availability list, but only in 10 gal at $357. Ouch.

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  4. The variegated Echinopsis looks very much like my Echinopsis 'Yes' variegata hybrid that I got from Mark Dimmitt.

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    1. Nancy, thanks for letting me know. It's very possible that's what it is. It definitely looks like an echinopsis.

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  5. Nice to see the place again. We were planning on going this spring, but then of course Covid-19 happened.

    Aloidendron dichotomum. Is it trying to push the rock aside?

    Nah, it's snuggling up to that nice warm rock. ;^)

    Exceptional Agave victoria-reginaes...yes yes.

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    1. Rancho Soledad will still be there next spring when it'll be safer to be out and about :-)

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  6. I never see 'Orca' offered locally retail. And a varieg Yucca rostrata! So much botanical beauty, so little cash! I wandered into the big grow houses when I visited and staff seemed to be okay with me just wandering around -- just a magical place.

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    1. I don't think we'll see 'Orca' in retail nurseries anytime soon. It's just too pricey.

      I think you can pretty much wander around at your own pace at Rancho Soledad. Nobody stopped me even when Ryan wasn't there.

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  7. There used to be so many growers in north county SD. Glad to see there are still a few holdouts-I can't imagine what a plot of land like this in Rancho Santa Fe would fetch on the market.I got a little swoon-ey looking at these photos !

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    1. There are still plenty of growers, but they've moved a bit further north to Vista, Bonsall, Fallbrook.

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