Treasures of the San Diego Botanic Garden

– Posted in: Garden Adventures


Of the dozen or so botanical gardens I’ve visited, San Diego’s singularly lacks conservatories. It doesn’t need them. Its coastal location has an ideal temperature range for plants as well as people, seldom going below 40 or above 90 F.

I live half an hour’s drive from the San Diego Botanic Garden, so I go there several times a year. My plan is usually to photograph succulents, but I never know what I’ll find. If you’ve yet to visit, I hope these images will tempt you. (Shown here: Aloe capitata flowers in mid-February.)

This display garden illustrates how beautifully waterwise ornamental grasses combine with succulents and cacti. On the lower left is a colony of Agave shawii, native to Baja California.

The large succulent in the foreground of the previous landscape shot is Agave attenuata, from central Mexico. It is smooth-leaved and not spiky, and one of the most common succulents grown in frost-free California gardens. But the variegate, shown here, is rare.

Dracaena draco, native to the Canary Islands and Madeira, is one of the largest succulents and the logo of the SDBG. The plant’s common name, dragon tree, has to do with its red sap.

Not all succulents have fleshy leaves. Beaucarnea recurvata stores water in a bulbous trunk (caudex). It is native to eastern Mexico.

The SDBG has an undersea-themed succulent garden, with plants tucked amid lava rock. (Design by Jeff Moore of Solana Succulents nursery and Bill Teague.)

The light was too strong for landscape shots when I was last at the garden, so I sought beauty in the details. I found it in ice plant flowers (Lampranthus azureus).

This Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ rosette is beginning to elongate into bloom. Aeoniums are native to the Canary Islands.

Luckily, when I needed a small person to stand next to this Aeonium ‘Sunburst’ rosette, one happened by.  After I asked her parents for permission, they instructed her in rapid-fire French.

People come to the SDBG in mid-June just to see the puya in bloom. Puya alpestris, which has the marvelous common name of sapphire tower, is native to barren slopes of the Chilean Andes.

Dudleyas growl and snap at you if you water them in summer. More people have killed dormant dudleyas (myself included) because the plants appear desiccated. But it’s normal for this California native to close its rosette and slumber beneath dry leaves. The one shown here has finished blooming and is starting to yawn.

The San Diego Botanic Garden (formerly Quail Gardens) has, in addition to succulent gardens, groves of rare bamboo, desert gardens, a tropical rainforest, California native plants, Mediterranean-climate landscapes,  an herb garden, a firesafe landscaping exhibit, a subtropical fruit garden, and native coastal sage natural areas. In June of 2009, the Hamilton Children’s Garden opened—the largest interactive children’s garden on the West Coast.


My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified. 

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
11 comments… add one

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Susan Morrison April 6, 2011, 9:05 am

Lovely photos, Debra. The second is my favorite. It’s amazing how intermixing the soft, billowing forms of the grasses softens the impact of the succulents’ rigid architecture. Great combo.

Thanks, Susan. They do a good job with landscape design at the SDBG. It’s a wonderful resource for local homeowners. — Debra

Dawn April 6, 2011, 9:07 am

Debra, I love the photo of the rare Agave from Mexico. Beautiful patterning and blue green color. Also the Dudleya has wonderful form and texture, especially with its ‘desiccated’ arms as a backdrop. Wonderful photography! Thanks for sharing the Botanical Garden.

I was just at UC Davis near Sacramento, touring their conservatory. Wow, talk about unusual plants! Hopefully I’ll soon share that with you, too. — Debra

keewee April 6, 2011, 9:09 am

How beautiful. I would love a wander through those gardens.

Thank you. To be honest, I don’t get there as often as I like, and it seems whenever I go, I don’t get to stay long enough. — Debra

Donna B. April 6, 2011, 9:27 am

This post alone makes me want to relive my vacation two years ago to CA… but instead leaving San Fransisco a bit earlier to drive down to San Diego – this garden looks GORGEOUS! ?
Thank you for the lovely photos.

Kind of a long drive—7 or 8 hours! We have a much drier, sunnier climate than that of cool, misty San Francisco. — Debra

Loree / danger garden April 6, 2011, 10:04 am

Another place on my list of “must-see” spots. Thank you for the teaser photos…how lucky you are to live in such a climate!

Yes, but when employers offer low wages (compared to the cost of living) we ruefully call it being “paid with sunshine.” — Debra

Stephanie Martin April 6, 2011, 11:13 am

To think I missed this beautiful place when I visited San Diego . . . guess it was because my son was so focused on Legoland? If I make it back that direction, I will not miss it again. Such different plants than I am used to and I appreciate seeing what other climes have to offer. Thank you for sharing it with us.

I understand Legoland has wonderful miniature gardens. A friend is director of horticulture there, but I’ve never been. Guess it’s time to go! — Debra

Julia Ferguson April 6, 2011, 1:03 pm

Was just at Quail for a memorial service in March. Trying to get used to the “Botanic” name. Gorgeous place for a service. The gardens were lovely and I bought an Agave “Blue glow” which I adore!

Thanks for sharing the wonderful photos!

I was there for a memorial service recently, too—Bill Teague’s. He was a wonderful designer and horticulturist, and a tireless Quail volunteer. Agave ‘Blue Glow’, which was hybridized here in San Diego, is one of my favorites. — Debra

Kaveh April 6, 2011, 2:10 pm

Weird seeing it referred to as the SDBG. I always think of it as Quail. While Quail may not have a conservatory the garden areas of Balboa Park in San Diego have a really cool conservatory sized lathe house that is definitely worth a visit.

That is indeed a great destination. Also, the San Diego Zoo near Balboa Park has a world-class botanical collection. — Debra

Laura Thomas April 7, 2011, 8:19 am

Stunning photos. I am still waiting for the snow to melt here. Hope to visit San Diego in the future.

We have our loveliest days in January, IMHO. In May and June, it tends to be overcast, and fall can be too dry and hot, with nothing much in bloom. — Debra

Roberta April 9, 2011, 11:09 am

Hi Debra,

Wonderful pictures! I love the Rare variegated Agave! But of course with your eye for beauty of
succulents plants, every picture is eye candy for
the gardener’s soul 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing!

You’re very welcome, Roberta. Succulents are a joy to photograph, especially the geometric and sculptural ones. — Debra

Sheila Schultz April 9, 2011, 3:33 pm

The undersea themed garden is incredible. The shapes, colors and textures of the succulents are beyond gorgeous. If I had the talent for photography you have in your little pinky, Debra, I would be a happy woman.

Many thanks, Sheila. But it does help when the subject is as good as this one! — Debra

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