February 2023 trip to San Diego

I just got back from a quick trip to San Diego. Well, it seemed quick to me, but it was actually five days, including two full days of driving. 1426 miles in total. Since I was by myself, I packed as much as I could into every day. I came home with 700 photos, I don’t even know how many plants, and one rock. I’m exhausted, but that’s how it usually is. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Private aloe garden, Los Angeles

My first stop was at a Facebook friend’s house in Los Angeles. He has an epic aloe collection featuring species I hadn’t even heard of before. Unfortunately, our plans for a personal tour didn’t materialize because he had urgent out-of-town business to attend to, but he invited me to poke around by myself. I’ll have a separate post eventually, but I’ll need his help identifying the aloes I photographed. There’s no way I would even venture a guess, considering the rarity of many of his plants.

Aloe cramscaping at its best

Aloidendron pillansii surrounded by many equally rare species

Aloe rivierei

Aloe volkensii ssp. multicaulis

The drive from Los Angeles south turned into a grueling stop-and-go marathon. Given the time of day (mid-afternoon), it wasn’t really surprising. What was a surprise, though, was the temperature: 84°F according to my car’s dashboard display! When I left Davis that morning, it had been 40°F.

Before I go much further, here’s a handy map with this trip’s major destinations:

Look what greeted me when I checked into my hotel in San Diego:

Agave attenuata print in hotel lobby. That has to be a good omen!

Devon Boutte’s aloe garden, San Diego

My first stop in San Diego County was at Devon Boutte’s extraordinary aloe garden. I had visited Devon a year ago (see here), and it was great seeing how much his plants have grown. Here are just a few teasers:

The way Devon weaves succulents and rocks into tapestries of color and texture is inspiring.

Balboa Park, San Diego

Like last year, I timed my trip to coincide with the San Diego Cactus and Succulent Society’s Winter Show & Sale, held at Balboa Park. I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting for such an event—the SDCSS is truly blessed to have such a spectacular venue as their home base.

Casa del Prado Theater

The Show & Sale was held at Casa del Prado

This year, the sale was inside while the show tables were outside. I would have much preferred to have it the other way around. It quicky got crowded—uncomfortably so.

I made an effort to be in and out and fast as I could, but the line to the cash registers ended up being very long.

Balboa Park is San Diego’s crown jewel—a 1200 acre “cultural oasis” in the heart of the city. After I was done with the sale, I grabbed my camera and took a leisurely stroll through the park, snapping photos of whatever caught my eye.

El Prado Arcade, unchanged since the construction of the El Prado complex in 1915

Aloidendron barberae

Aloe rubroviolacea

Dragon trees (Dracaena draco) in the Desert Garden

Old Town San Diego

Old Town is the oldest settled area of San Diego, dating back to the 1820s. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park preserves 19th century homes and businesses that provide a glimpse into what life was like when California was a Mexican province. A number of shops and restaurants cater to the four million people who visit each year. Museums and art galleries are within walking distance.

Of course I was focused primarily on plant-related sights, of which there are many:

I’ve never seen so many Agave attenuata in flower at the same time

Euphorbia ingens, the all-green form on the right and the white form on the left

Aloes, cactus, and euphorbias

For San Diegans, Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ is a common sight. Not to me!

OASIS Water-Efficient Gardens, Escondido

OASIS Water-Efficient Gardens in Escondido was my first nursery stop. It’s essentially the retail outlet of Altman Plants and sells a variety of their succulents in a no-frills environment. Larger plants are outside on the ground...

...smaller plants are on tables in a hoop house:

I like stopping at Oasis for their small but beautiful demonstration garden, especially at this time of year when the aloes are in bloom:

But who can resist the siren song of the plants for sale. Prices are less than at the big box stores, and many plants I’ve never seen anywhere else but here.

Echeveria ‘Love’s Fire’ (left), Aloe ‘Swordfish’ (right)

This time I also discovered a table with clearance items priced at $0.75 for 2" and $1.50 for 3". I didn’t hold back.

Rancho Soledad Nursery, Rancho Santa Fe

While Oasis is all about small plants (2" to 1 gallon), Rancho Soledad Nursery specializes in large plants, everything up to 48" boxes. This is the place to go when you want a 15" tree aloe or a 25" palm—and have the requisite budget. While the nursery is open to the public, it caters mainly to landscape designers and contractors.

I wanted three specific plants, and to find them, the sales rep drove me around the 25-acre grounds on an electric golf cart. In the process, I found out that the guy who owns one of the adjacent properties has a private car wash, gas station and race track for his car collection. Yeah, Rancho Santa Fe is what you would call “exclusive.” The property the nursery sits on must be worth tens of millions. Kudos to the family who owns it for resisting the siren call of the almighty dollar!

Aloidendron barberae silhouettes

Aloidendron ‘Hercules’

Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’ (sold under the old name Furcraea gigantea ‘Striata’)

Agave vivipara ‘Woodrowii’ in one of the display gardens

Growing grounds

Solana Succulents, Solana Beach

Solana Succulents is owned by Jeff Moore, author of books like Under the Spell of Succulents and Agaves: Species, Cultivars, and Hybrids, not to be confused with Jeff Moore in Tucson, who operates Arid Adaptations Nursery (read my recent post here). Solana Succulents is small, but it’s jam-packed with treasures and begs to be explored. Jeff knows most backyard growers in San Diego County and has access to a huge range of cool plants. It was good catching up with Jeff and poking around the nursery.

This beauty is a spectacular variegate of Agave ‘Blue Glow’. Needless to say it came home with me. Oops, that’s wishful thinking; I couldn’t afford the $280 price tag.

Tree euphorbias and the bulbil-laden flower stalk of Agave desmetiana

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park® (the name is a registered trademark of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, I kid you not) encompasses almost 600,000 acres of the Colorado Desert, the western extension of the Sonoran Desert. It occupies 1/5 of San Diego County and reaches into Riverside County to the north and Imperial County to the west. It’s immense, and immensely beautiful, but most of it can only be reached on dirt roads, which my car was ill equipped for. Someday I’ll rent a 4WD vehicle.

Anza-Borrego is one of the best places in California to see cacti and other succulents in habitat. It’s home to 16 cactus species, including the iconic California barrel (Ferocactus acanthodes), as well as Agave deserti, one of three agave species found in California. As much as I love seeing succulents in gardens, it pales in comparison to encountering them in their natural environment. It’s a thrill like no other.

Agave deserti and Ferocactus acanthodes (previously Ferocactus cylindraceus)

Cochemiea dioica (previously Mammillaria dioica) in flower

My main reason for visiting for Anza-Borrego—not that I really needed a reason—was to catch the tail end of the winter wildflower display. I was worried the warm weather in the week prior to my visit would put an end to it, but fortunately my worries were unfounded.

I picked up a wildflower map at the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association (ABDNHA) store in Borrego Springs and drove to the prime areas. (You can also download the map from here.) As you can see in the photos below, the winter bloom is still going strong. The main colors are purple from sand verbena (Abronia villosa) and white from dune evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides), with occasional pops of yellow from desert sunflower (Geraea canescens). There are other wildflowers, too, but they’re not all that showy.

Dune evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides)

Sand verbena (Abronia villosa)

The weather was changing fast while I was there, and in the early evening it began to rain. I felt the first sprinkles when I took the two photos below:

“African Elephant,” one of 130 metal sculptures by Ricardo Breceda found in multiple places around Borrego Springs

“Indian Head” at the intersection of Borrego Springs Road and Henderson Canyon Drive

Safely ensconced in my motel room, I heard the rain pounding down on the metal roof. The next morning, the day I drove home, was overcast, with an occasional break in the clouds. This made for dramatic displays that begged to be photographed:

Palomar Mountain Range in the clouds

I thought it was a fitting end to another wonderful trip.


© Gerhard Bock, 2023. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. What a great trip. So much to see and buy. I do n’t know how anyone keeps track of all the aloe names but so much incredible color in the winter. Some of them are so similar. I had no idea the wildflower season in A B was so early. I thought it might be a super bloom this year. At the end of Feb we have 6 nights in OrganPipe in our trailer and we are hoping for a big bloom after the great monsoon. But it’s been so cold we may be too early.

    1. Anza-Borrego has winter wildflowers and spring wildflowers. The spring season can extend into April if the weather cooperates.

      I've always wanted to go to Organ Pipe in the spring. I've seen photos of enormous fields of poppies. Can't wait to see your photos!

  2. Major destinations, indeed! Enjoy your time traveling around CA! I love San Diego, and now that I have family there, I hope to spend more time there. Perfect weather and so much to see and do. Have fun!

    1. San Diego has it all, doesn't it? Gardening in SD has got to be dreamy.

  3. I'm surprised by just how much you cram into every trip you take. I'm tired just reading the summary of your trip! I'm especially impressed by your photos of Devon Boutte's garden. And I'm in love with Aloe volkensii ssp. multicaulis, which I don't think I've ever seen before. I look forward to your more detailed posts.

    1. I look forward to visiting Devon's garden every time I'm in San Diego.

      The flowers of Aloe volkensii are among the most spectacular in the entire genus. Of course it's almost impossible to find one, not even a small seedling.

  4. Fabulous travelogue! Makes me wanna jump into the car and head south for the places you mention.

    1. >>Makes me wanna jump into the car <<
      That's the reaction I was hoping for :-=)

  5. You were so close to Waterwise Botanicals when you went to Oasis, I'm surprised you didn't stop!

    1. I was there last year and didn't feel the need for a repeat this time. The location is beautiful, as are the grounds, but their inventory isn't much different from Altman/Oasis. No surprise, since Waterwise is also part of the Altman empire.

  6. I am jealous of your wonderful trip, Gerhard! So fabulous! Devon's Aloes are to die for. He is such a great guy too. Doesn't Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ grow in Davis? It is ubiquitous here in Phoenix since maybe 15 years ago when it was discovered to do so well even in full sun! So few plants do that here!

    1. You're right, Devon really is a wonderful guy.

      'Sticks on Fire' grows great here in Davis from late winter to late fall, but it gets knocked back by frost in the winter. I had two plants that got disfigured by frost burn every winter. I finally got sick of them and tossed them. 'Sticks on Fire' and Agave attenuata are common as dirt in Southern California, but challenging up here in Northern California.

    2. I had Euphorbia tirucalli myself and in 2007 we had a really bad frost for us and the stems turned black. It was about 4 feet tall at the time and I pulled it out. Not to my liking! It froze here early this morning so I know I will have casualties from it. Ugh! I hate cold!

  7. I think you once asked me to keep an eye out for Agave vivipara ‘Woodrowii at the LA plant sales -- which if true possibly means you came home with that amazing specimen. I hope so!

    1. Unfortunately not. It's planted in the ground at Rancho Soledad. I check on it every time I visit :-)

    2. your comment made me smile “i check on it every time i visit” i do the same when i find special ones i can’t/haven’t bring home.
      New visitor to your blog, enjoying your write ups.

  8. Your energy level for travel always amazes me. I get tired imagining it. Now I must go recover from reading the post.

  9. Wow what a trip. Am feeling jet-lagged just reading all the places you went. Some beautiful shots and lots of great nurseries. Too bad you weren't able to bring home the Blue Glow variegate. What a stunner. Look forward to reading more of your journey.

  10. I’m surprised you found anyone at Rancho Soledad. I’ve been there twice and while I enjoyed walking the grounds it was frustrating not being able to actually buy anything.

    1. I can imagine how frustrating it must have been. When I was there, a sign at the sales desk asked visitors to call a phone number. That's what I did.

  11. I saved this post until I was back home (first saw it on my iPad in the hotel in Seattle) because I wanted to see all these photos BIG! Such a welcome change from our ongoing winter. Snow is falling as I type. I want to escape to San Diego...

    1. I hear you. We've had some beautiful afternoons here in Davis, but the nights have been cold, 33°F this morning. And starting tomorrow a wet and cold system will move in...

  12. My comment disappeared! Ugh. I've been commenting here for over 10 years, why does it sometimes not like me...

    1. It's still there--see above. Blogger acts up sometime, just like all the other social media platforms.

  13. These photos and your trip are very inspiring. Getting some new ideas :) Cheers

  14. Recently found your blog and enjoying the various posts. I am from Bay area and wish all these buying options exists ! Even the rock yards in San Diego that i have heard about!
    Did you buy all plants the first day and left them over night in the car ? I am
    thinking of going to San Diego just for a plant haul

    1. I'm so glad you found my blog! Welcome!

      I bought the plants over several days and left them in the car. In the summer, I would have taken them into my hotel room at night, but in the winter the car doesn't heat up enough to worry.

      If you have the opportunity to go to San Diego, do it!!!


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