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Report from the Berkeley Botanical Garden

Larry reverently contemplates entering the Botanical Garden.


I spent the last week of January in the San Francisco region, and wanted to point out some of the charms of Berkeley.  It was just a pass through on the way to Point Reyes, but it’s definitely worth a day in a traveling gardener’s agenda.

We arrived late in the day, in time to keep a dinner reservation at Chez Panisse, Alice Water’s restaurant. Waters, as I understand it, is the original American mover and shaker in the slow food/buy local movement, and we wanted to try the restaurant.  There is a choice of dinner in the upstairs café, which is a la carte, and in the restaurant, which has a set menu with two seatings an evening.  As you would expect in Berkeley, the ambiance is casual and friendly, but the service is efficient and knowledgeable.

A four-course meal with wine costs more than my rental car for a week, but I’m happy that all those local farmers can continue to live in the style to which they are accustomed. Interestingly, given the local theme and California’s fame as a wine producer, all of the wines paired with dinner were European.

In the California section, Sand Manzanita (Arctostaphyllos rudis)

The next morning we visited the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, which is perched at the top of the hill (mountain where I come from) upon which the university campus sits.  It’s a large garden with something like 12,000 plants.  (“Visit often, if you stay 2 hours, you have to see 200 species a minute!”  says the teaser, or something like that.)  What’s to see in January: a fair number of plants in bloom, and not many visitors.  The lay-out is by region of origin, so there is a South African section, a South American section, an Australian section, a California section, and so on, as well as several greenhouses, one devoted to ferns, one to arid climate plants.  Everything is labeled.

South African section. Note fog on the mountain.

At this time of year, many of the South African plants were in bloom, and some of the California species as well.  We spent quite a bit of time in the California section so we would have a better idea of what we were seeing in the days to come, when we would be hiking around Point Reyes.

(L) Bark of Pajaro Manzanita. (R) Ferns.

Two of the important genera from California are Arctostaphyllos (represented in Maryland by Bearberry) and Ceanothus (represented in Maryland by C. americanus, New Jersey Tea).  The California Arctostaphyllos, with the common name manzanita, have the tiny bell-shaped flowers characteristic of most of the heath family (Ericaceae) and seem to be light pink for the most part.  The bark is deep brown/red and smooth; very dramatic.  Manzanita is easily found if you go to any of the natural parks around the Bay area.

(L) Bergenia likes high humidity & good drainage, tolerates shade. (R) Banksia in Australian section.

Ceanothus has clusters of tiny blue or white flowers that were just starting to open.  They seem to cover the whole gamut from creeping groundcover to large shrub.  We saw a few “in the wild” but in the areas we visited, they were not prevalent.

Will the California species grow here? Not as far as I know; perhaps in a container with a lot of fussing.  One of the great joys of traveling is getting outdoors and seeing interesting plants growing on their own in the ground.  Even when you are on a well-trodden path, it’s still exciting to see ferns, sedum, or Manzanita growing along the trail.

In the South African section, Aloes and more.

Although we didn’t get there, one additional park very close to the Berkeley garden is the Tilden Regional Park, which includes the Regional Park Botanic Garden, said to have “the world’s most complete collection of California native plants.”  Perhaps we’ll get there on the next trip out.  A great garden center to visit is the Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, which I saw about ten years ago when the Perennial Plant Association national meeting was in California.  Although we missed it on this trip (closed Thursdays in winter!), it was a delightful experience, easily worth an hour (or two) to browse through.

(L) Coastal Cholla & ‘Giant Coreopsis’. (R) Agave stricta (Mexican)

Meanwhile, for those of you who would like to see our own East Coast native plants, a great place to visit is the Adkins Arboretum, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

South African section. Note lots of labels!

by Larry Hurley

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

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