KQED Guides

Coolest Exotic Plants: Guide to the Bay’s Beautiful Botanic Gardens

Updated: June 1, 2014


Looking for a local outdoor adventure that doesn’t require much prep? Check out one of the many fantastic gardens in the area, many of which have rare and endangered plants. Enjoy the summer sunshine and boost your botany IQ in one fell swoop.



Back in 1915, Mr. and Mrs. William Bowers Bourn began construction on Filoli, and today both the opulent house and its magnificent gardens are open to the public. Check out the Plane Tree Allée, which features London plane trees that have been pruned to be uniform, as in a classic English garden; the magnolia and camellia collections (the latter includes about 150 different varieties, of which about 50 are only found in private collections); the New Zealand Black Beech tree, which first arrived in the U.S. as part of the PanPacific Exposition in 1915 and is the oldest outside of New Zealand; and the red and white amaryllis that flower during the summer. And don’t miss the orchards! Tree fans will particularly appreciate the Camperdown elms at the estate. Many Camperdowns are vulnerable to Dutch elm disease, but those at Filoli, like the one down by the swimming pool that is among the largest and oldest in the country, has survived because it’s isolated from other elms. See what’s blooming on Filoli’s calendar. $18/person, children under 4 free.


Flickr: Silvain LeProvost

Head south to Palo Alto to visit the Elizabeth Gamble Garden, where you’ll find more traditional formal gardens as well as “working beds” – a terrific place to see summer flowers like foxgloves, zinnias, and massive dahlias (the size of plates!) in full bloom. In the Woodland Garden, you’ll find the shade created by the magnolia trees and maples brightened by white, purple and pink hydrangeas. The Elizabeth Gamble Garden also hosts great special events like plant walks, lunches and dinners in the lovely house on the property, flower arranging courses, puppet shows and even a Grandparents’ Day Spaghetti Dinner. Free admission, though special events often require a reservation and a fee.


Melanie Hofmann

The collections at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, focus on plants from Mediterranean climates around the world — not just those from the Mediterranean Basin but from Australia, South Africa, Chile and California as well. With nearly 10,000 species represented, the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley has particularly robust collections from the cactus, lily, heath, sunflower and orchid families. If you’re looking for examples of rare and unusual plants, however, you might want to keep an eye out for cycads, primitive plants whose origins date back over 200 million years but have been on the decline in the past few hundred years. Near the entrance plaza you’ll see one particular cycad species, Encephalartos laevifolius, which is critically endangered in the wild in its native South Africa. In the Mexican and Central American area of the garden, you’ll see another example of Deppea splendens, which specialists believe has been extinct in the wild since 1986. It blooms with dangling clusters of yellow flowers during the summer. If you venture into the Tropical House, keep a lookout for the surreal looking Amorphophallus titanum, otherwise known as the corpse flower, which is from Sumatra, is one of the largest flowering structures in the world, and stinks to high heaven during the first 12 hours after it opens. It will bloom again in 2013 (keep an eye on the web site if you want to catch it), but in the meantime, even its leaves are worth a visit: a single leaf is over six feet tall. $10/person, children under 5 free.


San Francisco Botanical Garden

Located in the heart of Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Botanical Garden is planted with more than 8,000 plants from around the world, including those rare and endangered plants that are the objects of conservation. Check the site to see what’s in bloom, and don’t miss the “cloud forests” – gardens that have the same conditions as rainforests at high elevations in Mexico, the Andes, and Southeast Asia. There you’ll find some of the garden’s most treasured plants, like the golden fuchsia (Deppea splendens) from Mexico and a type of passion flower called Passiflora parritae native to Andean cloud forests. San Francisco Botanical Garden is in fact one of the only outdoor gardens in the world that can grow these species, largely thanks to Bay Area fog mimicking high altitude cloud cover. Free admission.


In 1971, the last bits of the Bancroft family’s walnut orchard were cut down, and Ruth Bancroft took it upon herself to create a world-class garden of water-conserving plants in its place. Today the Ruth Bancroft Garden is home to hundreds of succulents and trees that don’t need much water, such as flowering aloe plants like Gasteria polita, which has cascades of tubular flowers; the propeller plant (Crassula falcate ), a native of South African with red blooms; Parodia warasii,  a native cactus from South America that is spherical in shape and bears clusters of lemon-yellow flowers that perch at the very top of the plant; and a 25-year-old Agave colimana plant, the likes of which are rarely found cultivated in gardens. The Ruth Bancroft Garden has all sorts of events should you need a special incentive to visit: pruning classes, yoga in the garden, and summer plant sales, just to name a few. $10/person, children under 12 free. Free entry on the first Tuesday of every month.


Flickr: Thomas Pix

Fans of Japanese gardening should not miss Hakone in the hills of Saratoga, established in 1917, listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and reportedly the oldest Asian-style estates and gardens in the Western hemisphere. Hakone’s lineage is impressive: the property is a replica a Japanese estate garden, and it was designed by one of the descendents of the families of gardeners that tended to the imperial gardens. Explore Hakone’s Hill and Pond Garden, where the sound of water accents the carefully designed aesthetics, the mossy tea garden, which is traditionally used as a serene place to purify one’s hands before a tea ceremony, and the Bamboo Garden, which is cared for by the Bamboo Society and includes specimens from around the world. $8/person, free for children under 4

– By Meghan Laslocky


  • mathewo1

    nice blog,

    AthelasPLants UK

  • Kiara Woodsland

    I’m looking for some plants to grow in my yard that are out of the norm. Personally I love to try new things out. One of my favorite plants shared is the top image. I would put it next to my small waterfall! Where can I find this plant? http://www.dinsan.com.au