I have a confession to make: If I didn’t have to visit botanical gardens to review them for my travel guides, I never would have learned how amazing the places are. Until I actually visited the spectacular Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, I never realized how… entertaining the world of botany can be (by the way, the Conservatory’s “Wicked Plants: Botanical Rogues & Assassins” exhibit is a must-see). If you’re already a fan of gardens, you won’t need encouraging, but for all you too-cool-for-tulips types, trust me: A getaway to any of these five botanical gardens will turn your thumbs green for good.
The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden
What started as a small garden planted by the Dean of Agriculture on the Berkeley campus in the 1870s is now one of the largest botanical gardens in the state: The University of California Botanical Garden. Let me guess—you not only haven’t been there, you didn’t know UC Berkeley had a botanical garden. Today the Dean’s humble garden is now home to 13,000 different kinds of plants from around the world—many rare, unusual, and endangered—that are cultivated by region in naturalistic landscapes covering 34 acres of Strawberry Canyon in the Berkeley hills. It’s one of the most diverse collection of plants in the world.
If you’re a gardener (or have landscaping issues at home), the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden is the ideal place to talk with the staff about waterwise plant choices: which plants will grow in your own garden, and what they will look like as they mature. Free docent-led tours are led year-round on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 PM, as well as a Waterwise Gardening Tour every third Thursday and the following Saturday and Sunday of each month at 1:30 PM. The UC Botanical Garden also publishes online a wonderful Botanical Garden Newsletter that’s available on their website. The Garden is open to the public daily (except for the first Tuesday of every month and certain holidays) and admission is only $9. For more information call 510/643-2755 or log onto www.botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu.
The MOMA of Sonoma: Cornerstone Festival of Gardens, Sonoma Valley
If you love gardens, landscape art, and wine, I’m about to make your day. Situated along Highway 121 in Sonoma Valley is the Cornerstone Festival of Gardens, the first gallery-style garden exhibit in the United States. I call it The MOMA of Sonoma—a series of 20 walk-through gardens showcasing new and innovative designs from some of the world’s finest landscape architects and designers.
Cornerstone is a 9-acre gallery of inspirational creativity, where landscape artists are given a blank garden parcel of approximately 1,800 square feet and almost no design limitations. The results are spectacular. And if you get inspired to create your own garden art (and you will), you can purchase items ranging from artistic outdoor furniture and gifts to plants, garden art, and books. The gardens are open daily 10am to 5pm; for more information call 707/933-3010 or log onto www.cornerstonegardens.com.
Conservatory of Flowers & Botanical Garden, Golden Gate Park
I’ve lived in San Francisco for nearly two decades and I still haven’t explored all the gardens in Golden Gate Park. Within this 1,017-acre natural sanctuary are dozens of exceptional gardens connected by wooded paths and paved roads. The springtime array of thousands of tulips and daffodils around the Dutch Windmills is a photographer’s dream, as are the cherry trees in full bloom at the Japanese Tea Garden.
And if you’ve never been inside the Conservatory of Flowers you’re in for a wonderful surprise: This glorious Victorian glass structure—the oldest existing public conservatory in the Western Hemisphere—houses over 1,700 species of plants in five galleries, including the largest Dracula orchid collection in the world (it’s also quite romantic). Then there’s the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden, where more than 7,000 plant species grow, as well as the Rose Garden, Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers, and dozens of other infinite hidden treasures for green-thumbed gurus. For more information about many of the park’s gardens log onto www.golden-gate-park.com.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
About 7 miles north of Mendocino is the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, one of the best botanical gardens on the West Coast and a fantastic excuse to hop in your car and take a weekend getaway to Mendocino. This cliff-top public garden, set among the pines along the coast, consists of a series of manicured formal gardens that offer a colorful display of rhododendrons, fuchsias, magnolias, azaleas, camellias, and a multitude of flowering shrubs that thrive in the mild maritime climate.
It’s also bloody romantic, with numerous trails that pass over bridges and streams and through fern-covered canyons, dense coastal pine forest, verdant dells, and flower-filled coastal bluffs overlooking the ocean. They also have picnic areas, so pack a basket before you arrive and enjoy an alfresco lunch among the daffodils. Even well-mannered pets are welcome. The gardens are open daily from 9am to 5pm; for more information log onto www.gardenbythesea.org or call 707/964-4352.
di Rosa Preserve: Art & Nature, Napa Valley
Anyone with an appreciation for art and gardens must visit the di Rosa Preserve to explore the collection and stunning 217-acre grounds of Rene and Veronica di Rosa, who have built up a world-renowned collection of 2,200-plus works of art by more than 800 Greater Bay Area artists, as well as a beautiful natural habitats replete with native grasses, ferns, herbs, and wildflowers.
Located in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley, it truly is a beautiful blend of art and nature, with intriguing sculptures on display throughout the gardens and along the shores of their 30-acre lake (as well as enclosed galleries within the di Rosa’s 130-year-old winery-turned-residence). To get the full di Rosa Preserve experience, make a reservation for a guided tour, which is offered Tuesday through Saturday. For more information log onto www.dirosapreserve.org or call 707/226-5991.