Close to home or farther afield, visit California’s native plants and gardens

Tanya Kucak/Special to the Town Crier
Woolly Blue Curls flourish in the arid area of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont.

If you’re in the mood for some road trips, immerse yourself in an atmosphere of beautiful plants and enthusiastic people by attending the Going Native Garden Tour, now in its 17th year.

Sponsored by the California Native Plant Society in association with the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County, the tour offers an unparalleled chance to talk with gardeners and designers, view gardens of different types and compare gardens planted a year ago to those planted a couple of decades ago. More than 50 gardens are scheduled to be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 4 and 5. Gardens in San Jose and other southern Santa Clara County cities will be open May 4, while May 5 will feature visits to northern gardens from San Mateo to Sunnyvale, including Mountain View. No Los Altos gardens will be on display this year.

To find out the locations of the gardens, register for free online at If you can’t make it that weekend, you can view photos of the gardens on the website.

Another free garden tour in Northern California is the Sacramento Valley California Native Plant Society Gardens Gone Native tour, set for April 27.

Botanic gardens

An altogether different immersive experience awaits at one of the three all-native botanical gardens in California: in Berkeley, Santa Barbara and Claremont. Although you won’t be able to grow (or find) all of the plants you see, your appreciation for the diversity of the state’s native flora will grow.

The 10-acre Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Park in the Berkeley hills is the most compact of the three. Its paths meander through well-defined plant communities, with nearly every plant labeled, so it’s a particularly good place to see coastal bluff plants and high Sierra plants on the same walk. It’s possible to visit most areas in a two-hour walk, but a slower pace and frequent visits will reward you with new discoveries.

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, with 78 acres, features a spectacular wildflower meadow (in season), a cool woodland trail, a manzanita section and a "water-wise home garden" section highlighting easy-to-grow plants. (And I still haven’t explored the canyon/arroyo areas.) Its garden shop carries an enviable selection of books on native plants as well as garden gifts, and its nursery is open every day. It’s a great place to spend a day or two (but not in fire season!).

In Claremont, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is spread over 86 acres. Like the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, it has a garden shop, nursery and library, as well as a huge collection of plants. The Indian Hill Mesa and Alluvial Gardens sections feature a series of garden rooms with different themes, well-identified plants and enough interesting features and signage for an outstanding self-guided tour. For instance, you can visit two different ponds, a California courtyard, a Native American village and a butterfly pavilion. The Container Garden and Cultivar Garden offer changing exhibits; the current ones have the intriguing titles "Game of Thorns" and "Grove of Thorns," respectively. A couple of years ago, the Container Garden showcased edible native plants of California.

The northern 55 acres of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, in contrast, feel more like an uncharted wilderness, albeit with wide, curving paths and sparser vegetation from more arid Southern California plant communities. Although the area is flat, minimal signage makes it a somewhat daunting place for a walk if you have limited time. The otherworldly boojum tree looms over an area of low shrubs, however, and serves as a marker for the northwest quadrant of the garden. m

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