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A West Coast Garden Tour

9 min read

If you’re heading out on a West Coast road trip this summer, here’s some essential equipment to bring along for the ride. No, it’s not a dash cam or a multi-prong charger, but the two-volume Pacific Northwest Garden Tour and California Garden Tour by travel expert and garden enthusiast Donald Olson, published by Timber Press. As you peruse the author’s knowledgeable and often juicy and witty insights and enjoy some garden tourism, you’ll feel like you have a friend in the backseat delivering fascinating tidbits into your ear. Olson will have you pulling into enchanting places like Lotusland in Santa Barbara, where he says the 3,500 different plants amount to “sheer botanical splendor,” and Abkhazi, a small charmer outside Victoria, British Columbia, where a Russian prince and displaced Englishwoman planted rhododendrons, woodland perennials, and ferns amid rocky slopes.

The two volumes (sold separately for $24.95 each) introduce you to the 110 best public gardens on the West Coast, from Vancouver, British Columbia, to San Diego. These landscapes are not only rich in marvelous plants and ornamental detail but they also say a lot about the people who created them. Lotusland near Santa Barbara is the legacy of Ganna Walska, a many times married Polish opera singer (and not a very good one, confides Olson) who described herself as “the enemy of the average” and sold off her jewels to pay for magnificent cycads that continue to flourish. The gardens at the Huntington Library, outside Los Angeles in San Marino, were among the passions of Henry E. Huntington, a railroad heir who became even wealthier when he married his aunt (yes, quite a scandal) and collected art, rare manuscripts, and the world’s largest collection of cacti and succulents. Portland’s Japanese Garden is the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan, and planted in the 1960s, is a testimony to the restoration of goodwill between World War II adversaries.

If one garden captures the spirit of the men and women who fashioned these magical landscapes and worked the soil to bring a little more beauty into the world, it’s probably Alcatraz. The famous prison in San Francisco Bay, erstwhile home of Al Capone and Bugsy Malone, is reminiscent of a Mediterranean isle. That’s because the warden’s secretary Fred Reichel and inmate Elliott Michener (a convicted counterfeiter) transformed the Rock into rose gardens and succulent plots — a testimony, says Olson, to the “human need to connect with nature and create beauty under even the harshest conditions.” You’ll feel this magic every time you follow any one of his excellent recommendations.

garden at Filoli, Woodside, California
Photo by Donald Olson

Filoli, Woodside, California
The name reflects the credo of founder William Bowers Bourn, “To fight for a just cause; to love your fellow man; to live a good life” (take the first two letters of “fight,” “love,” and “live”). Among these 16 acres of formal gardens south of San Francisco, surrounded by mountain and valley views, are lawns, outdoor rooms framed by brick walls and hedges, a sunken garden with a reflecting pool, and a Golden Age mansion.

The name reflects the credo of founder William Bowers Bourn, “To fight for a just cause; to love your fellow man; to live a good life” (take the first two letters of “fight,” “love,” and “live”). Among these 16 acres of formal gardens south of San Francisco, surrounded by mountain and valley views, are lawns, outdoor rooms framed by brick walls and hedges, a sunken garden with a reflecting pool, and a Golden Age mansion.

Virginia Robinson Gardens, Beverly Hills, CA
Photo by Donald Olson

Virginia Robinson Gardens, Beverly Hills
The wife of a department store heir created the first estate in the now-famously posh enclave, planting lush gardens on what were once lima bean fields.  The dining room of her Italianate mansion overlooks a palm forest, inspired, like most of the plantings, by a honeymoon voyage through Europe, India, and Kashmir.

the garden at Lotusland, Santa Barbara, CA
Photo by Donald Olson
 

Lotusland, Santa Barbara
As Olson writes, “when it comes to garden as theater, garden as glamor, and garden as diva” this world-class garden stands alone. Among the highlights are giant aloes and cacti and one of the greatest cycad collections in the world.

desert-oasis garden at Sunnylands, Palm Springs, CA
Photo by Donald Olson
 

Sunnylands, Palm Springs
With the bright yellow flowers of palo verde trees, green lawns, and a blue reflecting pool, these desert-oasis gardens are said to be an homage to Vincent Van Gogh’s “Olive Trees.” That’s no coincidence, because the painting once hung in the mid-century modern home at the center of this estate, the winter retreat of publishing mogul and diplomat Walter Annenberg.

Bloedel Reserve, Bainbridge Island, Washington
Photo by Donald Olson

Bloedel Reserve, Bainbridge Island, Washington State
What seems like a grand English estate is the Pacific Northwest home of a mid-20th century timber baron, a ferry-ride across Puget Sound from Seattle. Native mosses and other plantings are woven into a forested maritime landscape.

Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland, OR
Photo by Donald Olson

Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon
The best and most authentic Chinese garden outside China replicates an urban style that flourished around 500 years ago during the Ming dynasty. Serpentine walkways surround a lake and lead to pavilions and halls.

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