San Diego is a botanical bonanza. The mild climate and ample sunshine make for very happy plants. Whether you’re near the coast, on city streets, in the desert or on mountain peaks, there’s always gorgeous flora around. But these are some of the best places to take in the abundance of beautiful plants, both wild and sculpted, native and foreign, that call San Diego home.
Balboa Park Gardens
Balboa Park hosts more than a dozen different gardens. The Lily Pond and Lagoon, and adjacent Botanical Building, one of the biggest lath buildings in the world, with its thousands of ferns, orchids, and bromeliads is a good place to start. The Japanese Friendship Garden is a blissful retreat, with koi ponds, water features, and sand- and stone- artworks waiting to be discovered. The Spanish-style Alcazar Garden, brims with fountains, colorful tiles, and 7,000 annuals. But nothing smells as sweet as the three-acre Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, a thorny collection of 1,600 roses which blooms from March through December, peaking in April and May. All free; except Japanese Friendship Garden – Adults $12; Students, seniors, military $10; kids 6 & under free.
San Diego Botanic Garden
With nearly four miles of trails spanning 37 acres, you can wander among plants and environments from desert to tropical forest and everywhere in between at the San Diego Botanic Garden. Twenty-nine different gardens flower with more than 5,000 species of trees, palms, and bamboo from around the world. With the largest bamboo collection and largest interactive children’s garden in San Diego, it’s easy to see why it was named among the Top 10 Gardens worth Traveling for by the American Public Gardens Association. Adults $18; kids $10.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
One of the loveliest stretches of coast in San Diego, this bluff-lined area is also just one of two places that are the native home to Torrey pine trees (the other is Santa Rosa Island, in the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara). These stately trees are believed to be the world’s rarest pine, best seen from the network of short hiking trails crisscrossing the headland. This hike also provides a stroll through the native chaparral plants along the coastal scenic trail. Free.
The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch
For nine weeks weeks beginning on March 1, 50 acres of a hillside in Carlsbad bursts into endless rows of red, violet, yellow, pink, and other colors of Persian Buttercups. The ridiculously photogenic fields are traversed by walking paths and roads for tractor wagon rides. Bringing food for colorful picnics is encouraged, and food vendors are on hand weekends. Adults $18, kids $9.
San Diego Zoo and Safari Park Botanical Collections
Balboa Park & Escondido
The San Diego Zoo and its sister Safari Park both have incredible botanical collections. The zoo’s gardens are brimming with 4,500 species of prehistoric cycads, coral trees, orchids, and carnivorous plants. While there are gardens, many remarkable plants are part of animal exhibits, replicating the animals’ natural habitats. Numerous botanical tours are available. At the Safari Park, acacia trees and other Asian and African species make the animal inhabitants feel at home. Free with park admission.
Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens
Whether you’re looking to still the mind or just stroll among Zenned out gardens, you’ll find your bliss at this temple. You don’t need to study the spiritual science of Kriya Yoga to explore the garden’s meditation nooks, koi ponds, and manicured steps. This temple is the namesake of the Swami’s surf break—part of the jaw-dropping ocean views seen from the gardens. Closed Mondays. Free.
Edna Harper’s Topiary Garden
Twenty-five years ago, a neighbor’s cape honeysuckle started creeping onto Edna Harper’s garden. The artist (aka Edna Scissorhands) welcomed the invader, and began shaping it into a menagerie of elephants, dinosaurs, and myriad other shapes. She invites the public for free visits—no touching please!—to discern pyramids, a surfer, and other creations as tall as nine feet. These impressive sculptures have no internal frame—they’re only made using plants, an eye for detail, and lots of hard work. Free.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
The rugged desert east of Julian is an enchanting landscape at any time. But those who venture there in early spring, particularly after a wet winter, will find a vibrant landscape bursting with the blooms of more than 200 varieties flowering plants. Late February to April is the best time to behold the desert at its most alive and fragrant, painted with the flowers of barrel cactus, lupine, desert lavender, spiky ocotillo, saffron-yellow brittlebrush, and more.
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