Across El Dorado County’s lush green hills, fields of bright orange and yellow poppies are in bloom, warming the heart and making us want to see more. Wildflower followers didn’t expect so beautiful a display this spring, considering the drought. Even in the deserts of Death Valley National Park, Cheryl Chipman of the National Park Service reported with surprise that “the few random bits of rain this spring have been enough to get flowers blooming in the higher elevations in the park.”
Spectacular as they are, these flushes of bright color are all too ephemeral and require traveling far and wide across California to see them at their best. Timing the displays when they’re at full bloom, can be a guessing game. And, Frances Brandon of the California Garden Project says California has so diverse a display of plant life, “that it’s way too large to take it all in without traveling forever.”
That’s why her group has been searching for a location near Sacramento to place a world-class botanical garden that will provide, in one location, a display of the best to be seen throughout California, at any time of year. To be called “The California Garden,” it will offer “education, conservation and celebration” of the culture, environment and panorama of California.
The “California Garden” promises to be a place that showcases California plants and its people, from native plants and people to all who brought beloved plants from other lands to make California the cosmopolitan landscape it is today. Renowned Sacramento landscape architect Ron Allison anticipates the California Garden will show how well-planned gardens and sustainable practices provide beauty while conserving resources.
That’s an important message at a time when we’re faced with enduring drought, a growing population and stagnant decision making about how to deal with water shortages. Botanical gardens and arboretums have taken on new responsibility to educate, in addition to their long held purpose of providing inspiration.
California has 63 significant public gardens and arboretums. The nearest to El Dorado County include the University Arboretum at CSU Sacramento and the UC Davis Arboretum, though these are better known for their trees and native plants, than floral displays. For the most impressive floral displays in Northern California, visit Filoli in Woodside.
Located 30 miles south of San Francisco, Filoli is one of the finest remaining country estates of the early 20th century. Built for William Bourn and his wife whose wealth came from the Empire Mine in Grass Valley. He also owned Crystal Springs Lake and its surrounding lands and selected the southern end of the lake as site for his California eclectic-styled estate.
Filoli became a gentleman’s farm in the style of an English country estate, with numerous formal gardens, accented with clock towers, fountains, barns, henhouses and greenhouses. Filoli’s various gardens, terraces and orchards.
They are filled with annual and perennial color: peonies, tulips, hyacinth, azaleas, rhododendrons, over 50 wisteria species and numerous flowering trees, shrubs and vines, providing an ongoing show of breathtaking colors, floral beauty and scents. All of this is tended and curated by a passionate staff of professional and volunteer gardeners, docents, artists, interpreters, clerks and administrators.
That’s often the case at botanic gardens, where people who otherwise don’t have the space or means to garden on this scale can participate as volunteers, passing on their love of gardens, architecture, beauty and history to their visitors.
At the McConnell Gardens in Redding, plants native to all five of the world’s Mediterranean climate zones (Mediterranean basin, South Africa, Chile, Southern and Western Australia and California west of the Sierra Nevada) are presented in gardens specific to their region. In springtime, Carl and Leah’s Meadow near the west entrance off Arboretum Drive provides a visual feast and olfactory bouquet of California wildflower sights and smells.
Whimsical mosaic sculptures made from recycled glass, stones, found objects and tiles by Redding artist, Colleen Barry provide seating, function and diversion, while the granite, marble, concrete and ceramic Sounds of Water sculpture provides contemplative space and subtle messages about how water is used in California.
Art, sculpture and architecture are often key elements of botanic gardens. At the McConnell Gardens, Santiago Calatrava’s glistening-white Sundial Bridge, suspended by cable stays from a 21-story spire, is the ultimate expression of this ethic, combining all three elements within the world’s largest garden sundial. This is a public works, but it was funded through private investments. That’s often the beginning at botanic gardens. Individuals who are passionate about beauty and life get them started.
New Zealanders Shirley and Ernest Cosgrove are one example. Over their lifetime, the Cosgroves ceated the Efil Doog Garden of Art, north of Wellington. On its 11 acres, 50 often-humorous sculptures of surreal creatures and graceful shapes rise near garden paths, within planted forests and by idyllic reflecting ponds that are brushed in dazzling colors by 2,000 rhododendrons and 800 species and hybrids of magnolias, azalea, camellias and border perennials.
The Cosgroves named their garden “Efil Doog” from the “Good Life” spelled backwards. That’s similar to “Filoli” an acronym put together from the first two letters of William Bourn’s credo, “Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life.” Spending time in a spring garden helps us see the beauty and delicacy of life, as it did for the Bourns, has for the Cosgroves, and will for you.
More about these gardens is found at thecaliforniagarden.org, filoli.org, turtlebay.org and efildoog-nz.com.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.