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Must-See Gardens in California

Stop to smell the roses—and see orchids, poppies, and weird cacti—at these horticultural hot spots

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Whether you’re an amateur botanist, a backyard gardener, or even just a curious kid, you should beeline to California’s incredibly diverse botanic gardens. These protected oases are often peaceful retreats—and a great way to chill out on a go-go-go vacation. Some gardens are fascinating looks at individual passions, like the underground lair hand-dug by Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere, or a railroad magnate’s collection of international gardens near Los Angeles. Add one or more of our favorite green gems into your itinerary, listed here north to south, and who knows what you’ll be inspired to do—or grow—back home.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

This lush preserve’s diverse plantings of perennials, trees, and shrubs—including many natives—showcases the region’s botanical diversity. It’s also a great spot for birding (some 150 species frequent the property), so bring binoculars for close-up views. If you’re traveling with kids, pick up a Quail Trail Guide at the park entrance so the kids can learn about park resident Quincy the Quail and follow his hints for finding 17 quail markers along the stroller-friendly paths. Master gardeners and other experts teach assorted workshops here throughout the year; check the calendar of events to see what may be on offer. During the winter holidays, come see the gardens sparkle during the Festival of Lights (late November to mid-December). (more)

U.C. Botanical Garden At Berkeley

Shaded by soaring (and native) coast redwoods, this 34-acre research garden and museum in the Berkeley Hills lets you follow winding paths to see naturalistic landscapes that feature more than 13,000 plant species, including rare and endangered plants. Make sure to swing by Julia Morgan Hall, a rustic, wood-sided structure laboriously moved to the site from its original location on campus, and named in honor of its architect. Now overlooking the garden’s California native plant collection, the simple cottage-like building is polar opposite to Morgan’s best-known and arguably most lavish project: Hearst Castle along the Central Coast. (more)

San Francisco Conservatory Of Flowers

As pretty as a wedding cake, the Victorian bit of finery that is the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers has provided a tranquil refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city for generations. Visitors can roam about several rooms filled with exotic plants, take a docent-led tour, or just sit and take in the otherworldly ambience. From November through early January, the conservatory hosts its annual Night Bloom event, during which light and sound with transform the setting into a radiant jungle with immersive and interactive experiences around every corner. (more)

Forestiere Underground Gardens

Beneath the surface of the Central Valley, a staggering network of subterranean tunnels, chambers, and grottos meanders for some 10 acres as the city of Fresno bustles above. This Forestiere Underground Gardens, created from 1906 to 1946, is the handiwork of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere. No somber collection of barren caves, the hand-chiseled underground complex includes an underground fishing pond and a chapel; there are even open-air skylights so an underground garden and fruit trees could grow. Seeing the results on a guided tour, you can’t help but be moved by the seemingly Herculean achievement of this humble Sicilian immigrant.

Know before you go: Forestiere Underground Gardens is closed late December through early March, and on Tuesdays of every week. Check the garden’s tour calendar for details. (more)

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

This appealing garden, situated on the hilly east side of town, focuses on the state’s diverse native plants. But here, you don’t just look and see, you do too. The calendar is packed with guided walks, bird-watching sessions, book signings, lectures, and workshops on painting and photography. Kids love the chance to see and learn about an authentic Japanese tea ceremony at the tea house and explore the verdant, sprawling grounds. More than five miles of paths loop around the 78-acre property, and it’s a fabulous place to take in vistas of the handsome Santa Ynez Mountains to the north and east, as well as the Channel Islands, surrounded by Pacific blue. (more)

The Huntington

Spreading across a historic estate near Pasadena, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, & Botanical Gardens wrap you in a global palette of sweet-smelling flowers, lush bowers, and elegant art. Housing the art gallery is railroad magnate Henry Huntington’s 1911 Beaux Arts mansion; outside, the 120-acre estate is home to more than 15,000 plant varieties, found in more than a dozen unique gardens. Stroll the Rose Garden, for instance, and see 1,400 different varieties, or the Chinese Garden, with its lake, stone bridges, and waterfalls. Don’t miss the 6.5-acre Frances and Sidney Brody California Garden, home to 50,000 Golden State natives and dry-climate plants. (more)

California Botanic Garden

Explore California—or at least its plants—with a visit to this expansive site, the former Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. The largest botanic garden focusing solely on the Golden State’s native plants, the California Botanic Garden’s bucolic charms are undeniable, but it also functions as an important research and educational facility—and a terrific place for inspiration if you want to add California natives to your garden. Explore the grounds on your own, or take a guided tram tour. In about one hour, you’ll learn about plant communities from the California coast to the state’s southeastern border in the Mojave Desert. Check the calendar for free walks for beginning birders, and wildflower walks in spring (typically weekends, late March to early May). (more)

Fullerton Arboretum

Thriving on land that once served as the site of an orange grove, the Fullerton Aboretum, on the north end of the Cal State Fullerton campus, is the largest botanical garden in Orange County. If you’re feeling more energetic, consider joining a guided nature tour, or visit the 1894 Heritage House, a tidy Victorian-era cottage open on weekends and staffed by docents dressed in period attire. Otherwise, simply stroll among more than 4,000 plants, and watch ducks paddle about in the garden’s ponds and streams. Don’t miss collections devoted to woodland, desert, and Mediterranean plant species, as well as extensive cultivated gardens, a new orchard, and new wildflower section. (more)

Bamboo Garden at the San Diego Botanic Garden

San Diego Botanic Garden

Located 25 miles north of downtown San Diego in the hip coastal community of Encinitas, a patchwork of 29 theme gardens make the San Diego Botanic Garden a delightful escape for all ages. Four miles of trails traverse 37 acres and a remarkable range of microclimates, plus an 8,000-square-foot conservatory, the nation’s largest bamboo garden, a sparkling Pacific overlook, and much more.

Little visitors love the interactive Hamilton Children's Garden, and all ages can soak up the scents, from lavender to plumeria, and sounds on a stroll through the property. More than two dozen distinct landscapes, such as the South Africa Garden or the Mediterranean-inspired Olive Tree Garden, deliver inspiration and respite for people and creatures alike. Family-friendly tip: Be sure to enlist children in the gardens’ scavenger hunt. (more)

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