Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Late Fall

California Fuchsia in Container

Visiting the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden has long been one of my dreams. A few years ago, Mr. Mouse and I almost made it. We even had a room reserved - and then we found out that the Rose Parade was going on the very day we wanted to visit the garden, and we went home a day early.

It was the opposite this time. We were in Ontario for a music festival, and had 1 day of leisure. Entertainment opportunities are fairly limited in the area - and then I suddenly remembered the garden! It was only 8 miles from our hotel, so after some dithering and getting ready, we were finally on our way, and ready for many surprises.

Surprise #1: No crowds!

Honestly, the place is so amazing I expected difficulty parking and crowds on Thanksgiving weekend. You'd see that at Huntington gardens that day I'm sure. But, no, there were visitors, but it was a restful and peaceful experience to visit. (We were all a little subdued from temperatures that were almost in the 90s, but no matter, it was amazing!)

Surprise #2: Lots of desert plants! 

Yes, the botanical garden has plants from many different habitats, but the climate there is much dryer than, say, at Tilden Regional Park. So, succulents, palms, and cacti. Beautiful plantings of them.

Surprise #3: Wildflowers!

The clever design of the garden leads the visitor from the entrance through a dry, sandy area with cactus and succulents, and immediately to a wildflower meadow. 

Even this time of year, things are beautiful and blooming, with lots of pollinators. I was especially impressed how well maintained that area of the garden is. I'm quite sure there's some hand watering going on (there were rolled up hoses in many spots). But I didn't see a single weed! And while it worries me a bit that this creates a somewhat unrealistic expectation of what a native garden looks like, it sure is pretty!

Surprise #4: Much About Gardening

Botanical gardens often have a strict emphasis on teaching about plants, plant families, plant ecology, etc in the wild. Rancho Santa Ana is different. It includes a very large area that showcases different California plant communities - maybe 2/3 of the garden? And it includes other areas that show off plants in a more garden-like setting, with trellised wild grapes, small fountains, and demonstration beds. 

The picture below shows a butterfly house, not currently in use by butterflies, that is surrounded by different butterfly-friendly plants in a garden setting. I can only imagine how enjoyable it might be for kids and adults alike when the butterflies come visit in spring! 

Surprise #5: Hybridized Natives Aren't Evil

We also explored a fairly large section of the garden that showed off hybridized natives. I much appreciated that the garden chose not to be preachy about hybridizing being a bad thing (or a good thing, for all that). Instead, they explain why hybridization has been a tool of the gardener for many centuries, and ever since people gardened with natives, they hybridized and propagated plants with desirable traits. One example is Toyon 'Davies Gold', an attractive toyon cultivar that has yellow berries instead of red berries. I was a little intimidated by the specimen they had, which is easily 20 feet high. 

I planted one in my front garden in 2010, expecting 8 feet. But I'm already at 10 feet, and now I know the sky is the limit. Might have to rethink my pruning strategy...

Also in the cultivars garden an especially pretty woolly blue curl - clearly, this plant is getting a nice amount of water. Wish mine looked like that this time of year...

Another interesting part of the garden was a focus on American India lore and life. Some of the plants had labels that explain the medicinal properties or other uses (basket weaving, for example). And a dwelling plus a metate for grinding acorns and a shade structure can surely be put to good educational use. 

Surprise #6: The Plant Sale that Never Ends

As our visit neared the end (it really was hot!) we had to stop at the nursery. Which was a native plant gardener's dream. The plants that are ready for sale are housed in an open greenhouse with light shade, and they all looked great! I showed admirable restraint, but I did pick up a beautiful desert wild grape to replace a wild grape I used to have that managed to die. I think the yellow fall foilage will look great in front of the fence!

Surprise #7: Game of Thorns

My treasure in hand, I accompanied Mr. Mouse to our final stop, the Games of Thorns exhibit near the gift shop. We had a bit of trouble finding it - but it was worth running around for a bit (with a wild grape under the arm). A very innovative display of different plants that know how to protect themselves. The plants were primarily shown in beautiful containers with attractive signage that explained the different "houses" and the different ways in which each plant can do a lot of damage. Who knew that thorns can harbor tetanus and anthrax? Can I now pretend I never read this? 

Even though this exhibit really is a highlight of the garden, we were quite tired by then, and ready to leave. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in downtown Claremont, a pleasant little town where we found some frozen yogurt and had a little rest. Then we retired to the hotel for a nap to be ready for more music. The next day, we happily took our wild grape treasure home, looking forward to seeing it grace the fence with fall colors, a reminder of a fun time in a very special place!


Unknown said…
Okay, I'm sold. Next time I in LA I'll make a special trip.
Diana Studer said…
Now I'm nervous of gardening (or hiking) around thorns!
Country Mouse said…
How amazing is all that?! What a great trip report - about an amazing place! And in case I'm one source of your thought about the opinion "hybrids are evil" let me reassure you: my concerns are about botany, about plants in the wild -- not those in the creative zone of a garden that's a safe distance from wild populations -- I do worry about humans mucking about in mother nature's domain, that's for sure. Better safe than sorry is my motto here at home.
Ryan said…
Nice visit. I've been twice now. Wonderful garden. It's with Tilden as my two favorite gardens for natives. Everything is so big, the specimens are huge but also some of the groupings of plants. November looks nice. I'd like to see it in full spring bloom sometime.
Turling said…
I work right down the street from the garden and am lucky enough to be a member. I'm hitting the nursery today, as a matter of fact, in hope for some Dutchman's Pipe (I have low hopes this early in the season). The butterfly pavilion is wonderful, my daughter loves it as you get to walk through and be with all the butterflies. The garden was quite spectacular last spring after we actually got a rainy winter. Alas, no rain since February and it looks like they have to resort to minimal watering.

As far as the lines, it's usually not that crowded, especially compared to the Huntington. If the Huntington is champagne and caviar attracting the crowds, well the RSABG is more like beer and pizza. And, I'm a beer and pizza kind of guy. Glad you enjoyed your visit.