California rambling: Magnificent magnolias

By From page A4 | January 07, 2013

One of California’s most distinctive and colorful shows of foliage is seen each winter at the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, where nearly 100 rare and historical magnolias erupt in a fragrant riot of vibrant pink and white flowers.

This floral spectacle is worth planning a trip to San Francisco to see. Some of the ancient trees reach 80 feet in height and peak from mid-January through March. Visitors to the S.F. Botanical Garden can take advantage of free Magnolia Walk maps, docent-led tours, special signage and more to celebrate and learn about these magnificent trees.

In the United States, magnolias grow naturally from Virginia west to eastern Texas and Oklahoma.  It’s the state tree in Mississippi, though many more varieties of them flourish in California’s Mediterranean climate.

The San Francisco Botanical Garden is home to the most significant magnolia collection for conservation purposes outside China, where the majority of species originated. Its current collection includes 51 species and 33 cultivars, including many prized examples from Asia. The world’s 210 magnolia varieties come from southeast and east Asia, North America, Central America, the West Indies and South America.

Magnolias are among the world’s oldest flowering trees. Varieties are believed to have existed in North America as long as 95 million years ago. The genus is so old, it predates the appearance of bees, with early varieties adapting themselves to being pollinated by beetles.

The unique and longstanding collection of magnolias at the S.F. Botanical Garden began in 1939 when Eric Walther planted the first tree. He continued to introduce species and cultivars throughout his tenure as the garden’s first director. One of the most famous species Walther planted was the cup and saucer magnolia or Magnolia campbellii, the first of its kind to bloom in the United States (1940).  It attracted huge crowds of excited and curious visitors who stood in long lines to see its magnificent large pink blossoms. This lovely magnolia is still enjoyed, today.

San Francisco’s annual display of magnolia blossoms is best seen from mid-January to March. The S.F. Botanical Garden is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in January, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in February and early March, and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from the second Sunday in March through April. Admission is free to San Francisco residents with proof of residence and $7 general, $5 seniors and students (12-17) with ID, $2 children (5-11) and free to kids 4 and under. Family passes (2 adults and one or more kids) get in for a flat rate of $15.  More about the show is found at or call 415-661-1316.

During winter, San Francisco can be misty and chilly, which adds drama to magnolia viewing and a reason to head indoors. On your hunt for San Francisco’s magnolias, include a stop to eat and refresh yourself at the Magnolia Pub and Brewery at 1398 Haight St. This bubbly brewery-slash-eatery celebrated its 15th anniversary in November. Try one of their house sausages ($14) with brewmaster Dave McLean’s Cole Porter or Proving Ground IPA, or a Prather Ranch heritage pork chop glazed with apple mustard and served with broccolini, dates and sweet potatoes ($22) accompanied by a Kalifornia Kolsch or Stout of Circumstance.  If you visit on a Tuesday, all beers are $3.

While in the Haight and in search of things “magnolian,” truly become a flower child by exploring the district that was home of flower children (hippies) during the summer of love in the late ‘60s. Living there, then, were the Grateful Dead (710 Ashbury), Janis Joplin and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company (122 Lyon St.), and Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane (2400 Fulton). Along Haight Street, you can outfit yourself or your pad with flower power at Piedmont Boutique, Dreams of Kathmandu, and Positively Haight Street. Or, peruse glass pipes and incense holders at Pipe Dreams, the oldest head shop in a district that was once wafting with them.

Other floral destinations in Golden Gate Park, include the Conservatory of Flowers, a six-story-tall Victorian greenhouse that contains rare and exotic plants, the Dahlia Garden, the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, the Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers, and the park’s Rose Garden.

Though most of these gardens are at peak in spring and summer, blooms still brighten a winter visit.  Further descriptions and directions are found at

Another mid-winter floral show not to miss is the cherry plum bloom in February. Though similarly lovely, these plum blossoms shouldn’t be confused with cherry blossoms that bloom at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park and at Japantown (Post and Buchanan Streets), in April. San Francisco’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival occurs there, April 13-14 and 20–21.

To plan a mid-winter getaway to experience San Francisco’s magnificent magnolias or to just release the flower child within you, visit,

John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.

John Poimiroo

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