The coastal morning fog (which followed those several screaming hot days) had not yet lifted when I arrived at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden just as it opened. San Luis Obispo, lovingly nicknamed SLO, is home to Cal Poly. Although now consolidated with other disciplines of study, the former horticulture department has been responsible for many professionals in the ornamental horticulture and plant science world. Although it makes perfect sense that SLO would have a botanical garden I had heard nary a mention of it from any of my plant road tripping, nursery shopping, garden touring compatriots.
San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden is located on Highway 1 tucked into El Chorro Regional Park. It was established in 1989 and focuses on plants adapted to the dry summers of California and the world’s other four Mediterranean climate regions.
Gold tiles on this beautiful mosaic map near the entrance show the Mediterranean climates which were first studied scientifically around the Mediterranean Sea. These climate regions feature hot summers with no rain which stresses plants. Winters are mild with rain which supports growth and blooming. Adapted plants are able to minimize water loss and store water to survive through the summer. This type of plant material does not make a classically beautiful garden filled year round with showy color but does provide a great resource for gardeners faced with long dry summers and mild wet winters as a place to see successful plants in situ and at mature size. Sort of a bloom where you are planted philosophy–we all can’t have English cottage gardens or Pacific Northwest woodlands.
The present garden (far left middle in green) represents only 2 of the 150 acres laid out in the garden’s 1998 master plan. Development of these remaining acres awaits further funding. Check out http://www.slobg.org for ways you can donate to help this ambitious project!
Lucky for me, my visit coincides with the annual Fall Plant Sale. Knowing that the early shopper gets the best selection I am headed there first, hoping to find a few new-to-me goodies to incorporate in my long side yard renovation. As it is a pretty much stand alone area with little view of the front yard proper I think it can take a few ‘one ofs’ without distracting from the visual rhythm of the existing landscape. Up the hill I go!
The screened houses are almost ethereal in the low hanging fog. Note the barely visible shrub with the white blooms cascading down the slope–this is Capparis spinosa, the evergreen shrub whose flower buds are pickled and bottled as capers. I encountered the plant elsewhere in the garden and decided it was a little large and rangy for my needs but I did snap a photo of its gorgeous flower.
Unlike my valley, the Central Coast is able to many plant succulents directly into the ground without fear of frost–there were many varieties and container sizes available.
I was really impressed with the sale’s organization and excellent labels. The forest lily was one of my purchases and I doubt I would have looked twice (only foliage, no flower) had the photo of the plant in bloom not caught my eye. I am going to put this one in a pot for its first year and give it some winter protection while I settle on a spot in the ground with enough summer shade.
Knowledgeable volunteers to assist shoppers were abundant and I was given an information sheet like this one for each of my selections. For those with garden questions the SLO County Master Gardeners (not affiliated with the botanical garden) were on hand with lots of reference material to tease out the answers. Although this was a modest sale in terms of the number of plants, the individual plants were in excellent condition, the variety of plants was great and I even got a ride back to my car with the garden’s Education Director, Lindsey Morgan, plant booty tucked safely in the back of her golf cart!
With the precious cargo stowed away in my car I spent some time wandering the meandering hilly paths of the garden. The Self Guided Tour leaflet listed the not-to-miss specimens in each of the site’s numbered climate zones. Most zones had several beds and each bore a reference letter. Note that the above info sheet told me to look in the Mediterranean region (#4) at beds B, H, or O to see Teucrium betonicum–easy to find.
Many of the plant labels have attached QR (Quick Response) codes–the little jigsaw looking square scanner codes you see on everything these days–which allow you to access additional information about the plant using your smartphone camera. The red ones like above link you to the garden’s publication, 128 of Our Best!
This bright green, weeping mayten tree (Maytenus boaria) is the star of the Chilean Region. Its lush and graceful branches make it hard to believe that is a drought tolerant evergreen from canyons in central Chile’s coastal ranges. If this one is at its mature size it would make a lovely addition to a midsize residential garden.
Many of the plants in the California Region have small or needle-like leaves with hard coatings to minimize water loss. Manzanitas (Arctostaphylus spp.) and California lilacs (Ceanothus spp.) are good examples of this water saving foliage strategy. In several of my April 2017 posts about the Theodore Payne Native Plant Tour there are photos of many different cultivars of both of these species. Both species are spring/summer bloomers and as such don’t look like much more than green shrubs here!
The California buckeye (Aesculus californica) is a summer deciduous tree which blooms in the spring and then drops its large leaves to reduce water loss. It is easily identified from a distance by its large, hard, fig shaped fruits. My tour leaflet taught me that the Chumash and Salinan peoples crushed and tossed these toxic fruits into ponds and streams to temporarily stun fish for easy harvest.
Can’t resist a great piece of garden art made from recycled/upcycled materials.
The Firesafe Demonstration Landscape includes plants with fire resistive properties and good educational materials about maintaining a fire defensible space around homes built near natural spaces. Dry summers = fire danger–we have all seen the recent examples of loss of life and property to wild fires.
The Life Celebration Garden is a quiet, contemplative space furnished with benches in the shade of oaks. The Allen Root art piece entitled Celebration invites you to imagine as you view it a flowing stream with circles of ripples from pebbles tossed into it.
The Children’s Garden features drought tolerant plants, edibles, insect and bird houses and is the site for a variety of family friendly educational activities designed to spark interest in and appreciation of our natural world.
As I wandered the casual garden spaces I observed many of these little house and conjured up a scenario in which the SLO Botanical Garden was providing shelter for some quasi-endangered little creature. Meeting up with garden staffer Lindsey Morgan near the end of my tour I question her about the wildlife the houses were sheltering–turned out to be the native Sprinkerlus manifoldii–proving that I can be be sucked into believing just about anything.
OK, so this Historic Fig Tree doesn’t really look different from any other fig tree but here is its story: A cutting of the ‘Mother Fig’ at the San Gabriel Mission was given to Father Jose Cavalier of the San Luis Obispo Mission in the late 1780s. It grew to be a large tree in the Mission’s orchard until its removal in 1974 during construction work. Many cuttings were made at that time and this one was given to the SLO Botanical Garden in 1997. It is Ficus carica (edible fig) and bears fruit annually.
So ends today’s brief tour of this nascent botanical garden. I love the fact that it is part of the larger regional park. There are people playing baseball in the field to one side of it and I can see tent campers on a not too distant rise. I expect that locals use the park for many family friendly activities and events and that makes the garden another place you can spend part of a larger day in the park–learning about plants and wildlife under the open skies rather than a classroom. I plan to return in the spring to see many of the garden’s shrubs in the full flush of a coastal spring. I hope you will come too!
This caper bud escaped harvest and the pickling brine to offer this gorgeous bloom!