June 6th, 2008
Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens

Strybing Arboretum
The Oudtshoorn pincushion, Leucospermum erubescens, is just one many exotics from South Africa to be found at the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Garden.

Three out of the four days I was in San Francisco last week I managed to visit the Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park. The first day I got there about 3PM, after my visit to the Conservatory of Flowers and window-shopping in the Haight. I’ve visited the Strybing several times before and was tired out from walking around, so I went to rest in one of my favorite spots, the coastal redwood glen. I lay there for a very long time, looking up at the redwoods, the illusion of being deep in the wood disturbed only by traffic sounds (well, that and the fact that I was lying on a park bench).

Strybing Arboretum
Coastal redwoods at the Strybing Arboretum. Can you see my bench, almost in the middle and a little to the right?

Shortly after 5, I felt rested and ready to takes some photos. First I had to find the facilities. When I did, they were locked. I dashed to the other side of the gardens. Those were locked, too. Turns out that the Strybing closes at 4:30. If I left now to find a restroom, I wouldn’t be able to get back inside. I was disappointed but I had no choice.

I decided that I was going to feel cheated if I didn’t go back to take some photos. I’ve done my sight-seeing on previous trips and shopping does not entice me. So the next morning I got to the Strybing first thing after breakfast. It was a rare sunny morning. Morning is definitely the best time to visit (if it’s a sunny day) because the garden is better lit than even mid-afternoon when the tall trees put all the understory plants in shade.

The only problem is that the rainbirds are going. So you have to be careful to dodge them or risk getting drenched.

Strybing Arboretum
Dodging the rainbirds during morning watering.

Given how very dry the climate is, I was surprised that the Strybing used rainbirds instead of drip irrigation to water. San Francisco is a gardeners’ paradise. The temperatures are cool but there is plenty of sun. The only problem is water.

The Strybing is huge, 55 acres, and it seems larger because the beds are laid out in a very, naturalistic way with small paths that seem to wind every which way and lead you in circles. Even with a map in hand, I always get turned around. Collections are grouped by place of origin so that the climatic conditions can be mimicked. Rather than create geometric garden rooms, hills, berms, and trees isolate each area and obscure most views.

Strybing ArboretumLooking toward Friend Gate over Wildfowl pond.

There are only a couple of open places in the garden. On entering the Strying the first thing you see is the Great Meadow, which is just a lawn with a small fountain at the far end. This is the least interesting space to a gardener. It is the people place, where people to go and lie on the grass and read or watch their kids run free among but away from the valuable plants and trees. The paths lead you to the right, to the other open space of the Wildfowl pond.

Strybing ArboretumLooking toward the Zellerback Garden of Perennials.

Perversely (given the design of the garden) my favorite view is a long unbroken one looking either toward (or from) the Zellerback Garden of Perennials. I like to sit under the arbor (which was drenched with white wisteria, this trip) and write. When I consult the map, I discover that the entire garden is built on an axis that goes from the entry to the arbor in the Garden of Perennials. One would never guess that being in the garden.

As natural as it seems, the Strybing Arboretum (and the entire Golden Gate Park) is a made place, built on wind-swept sand dunes. The designer, John McLaren, spent 56 years acquiring plants from all over the world and arranging them in natural-looking landscapes. According to a sign in the park, “When he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1916, pressure from voters resulted in a city statute giving him life-tenure. He died on the job at the age of 96.”

The Strybing is a plant collector’s dream. Want to know what you might stumble across? The pdf listing the 7,000 species currently at the Strybing is 115 pages long! Here’s just a few that caught my eye.

Aeonium tabuliformeWhen I walked into the Strybing, the first thing I saw was this dinner plate aeonium and thought, my goodness, it’s like all the plants are on steroids. Related to sempervivum, the common name suggests that dinner plate aeonium just grows big. But I don’t know…all the plants I saw in San Francisco seemed huge.

Strybing Arboretum
The Australian bottlebrush is apparently well-adapted to San Francisco. I saw huge tree-sized specimens blooming everywhere, even some interesting weeping forms. However, I’m a little tired of red flowers in my own garden because I have so many of them and they all clash with each other. So imagine my delight when I saw this lemon bottlebrush, Callistemon pallidus. The pale yellow inflorescences seemed to glow in the twilight. Several cultivars have been introduced in Australia. One is called, appropriately, ‘Austraflora Candle Glow’. I hope they will become available in Texas soon.

Gingko biloba
I grow a gingko, too, but mine is only about six feet tall with a trunk so thin I can wrap my thumb and finger around it. I was astonished to see that someday it might become a very large tree.

Psoralea pinnate
The flowers of Psoralea pinnata, blue broom, had almost the same color and grape soda scent as Texas mountain laurel. But instead of dark round glossy leaves, it had soft, needle-like leaves (which is probably why one of its common names is Dally pine). A native in South Africa it has been introduced to Australia and New Zealand where it is considered an invasive weed.

I’m amazed that two plants on either side of the world, could have flowers so similiar in shape, color and scent, and yet completely different leaves. Don’t things like that just make you want to be a taxonomist, to study the similarities and difference among plants and figure out a way to classify and group them? When I visit a place like the Strybing, it kills any desire to grow only native plants. I want to embrace a world of plants. Life on earth is more fascinating than our wildest imaginings.
Strybing Arboretum

by M Sinclair Stevens

16 Responses to post “Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens”

  1. From Julie:

    What refreshment on this already-hot Austin morning! thank you MSS for all the wonder and green.

    I wish I were there again this morning, instead of here! — mss

  2. From Cindy, Katy:

    OK, the Strybing is officially on my list of places I must visit! Thanks for showing us some of the wonders to be found there.

    The collection is so overwhelming that I had a difficult time deciding what to focus on. — mss

  3. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter (Chicagoland):

    The rain birds make for a neat photo. Your shot of the bench under the Redwoods really captures the scale of those trees. I wish I’d had time to see this when I was in San Francisco. Definitely next time.

    The redwoods are huge. The entire Golden Gate Park complex is wonderful. In addition to the Conservatory of Flowers and the Strybing Arboretum, there’s the Japanese Tea Garden (which I’ll write about next) and the de Young Art Museum. Later this year the new California Academy of Sciences building will open. The green roof design looks wild. — mss

  4. From Margaret Powis Austin:

    I love your photographs. It wasn’t until I went on the Master Gardener’s tour that I fully appreciated your ability with the camera, in addtion to your computer and gardening skills. Loved the photos of Strybing Arboretum. The plants you chose to photograph look so good, I want some, I want some.

    What a sweet thing to say. You’ve made my day! I’m not a “natural”–which means I really have to work at my writing and photography. I put a lot of thought into how I want to present a topic. I often wonder if it’s worth the effort. So, when someone notices, I feel really rewarded. — mss

  5. From Annie in Austin:

    The Strybing Arboretum looks like a wonderful place, but then Chuck’s Back 40 has been making us all long to see those San Francisco gardens! Thank you for linking to the PDF map, too.

    Your trip is the way I’ve always wanted to see the Chicago Botanical Gardens – as a visitor on a couple of successive days rather than a suburbanite making an exhausting daytrip with 90 minutes of driving attached to each end of the day.

    The “55 acres” figure made me curious so I googled our own Zilker Botanical Gardens –

    It’s said to be about 22 acres with San Antonio Botanical Gardens listed at 33 acres, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens as 52 acres, and the Chicago Botanical Gardens are described as a 385-acre living plant museum. So many acres that I want to see!! Thanks for the tour, MSS!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Oh, Annie! You know I’m a sucker for these kinds of comparisons. The Zilker figure does not seem to include the Harmann Prehistoric Garden. The Strybing seemed a lot bigger than twice the size of Zilker but I think it has to do with 1) how big the trees are (Texas has pretty scrawny trees) and 2) how many plants and how many different types of plants are packed into the space. It’s as if the entire garden was like Zilker’s xeriscape demonstration garden. — mss

  6. From Fran Sorin:

    MSS, you’re right! It is synchronicity that we both wrote about California gardens on the same day. Thanks so much for sharing your visit to Strybing Arboretum. The next time I’m headed out that way, I will absolutely do a ‘stop over’ in San Francisco for a visit!

    When you do, I’ll be looking forward to your post. I learned recently at Spring Fling that it’s very interesting to view the same gardens through a variety of perspectives. We’re all impressed by something different. — mss

  7. From Margaret in New York State:

    That Leucospermum in your opening photo…he looks as if he got all gussied up in those colors just to pose next to your ochre and khaki blog header!

    As the Easterner, I’ll put in a nod for the New York Botanical Garden at 250 acres (!!!), pretty amazing when you think it’s in NYC, and one of the oldest in the nation. Inspired after the family that owned the land in the Victorian era traveled to Kew in England and wanted one of their own, so to speak. World-class.

    Sounds wonderful. Have you done a post on it, yet? I’ve only been to NYC once and it was snowing then. So I went to museums not gardens. If I ever get another chance to visit, I’d definitely make every effort to see the botanical garden. Is the ZG header khaki? I hoped it was butterscotch. — mss

  8. From Layanee:

    A nice walk through the redwoods although I love that huge Aeonium! We are still in the cool here at 57 degrees this a.m. but they are forecasting nineties this weekend. We will all melt with that temp and no transition!

    I hate that! What I want is a summer with about four months of temps in the 70s–not too cold and not too hot. — mss

  9. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    What can I say except that you’ve got even me wanting to go to San Francisco to see these beautiful gardens. Your descriptions and your pictures captivate me. Thanks for a wonderful blog post.

    My pleasure. — mss

  10. From Blackswampgirl Kim:

    I really do feel like I went for a walk with you here… although with sights like that dinnerplate aeonium, I kind of feel a bit like Alice! 🙂

    I agree that the rainbirds are very pretty. I wonder if the cost to change to drip irrigation would just be too costly… although I would think that they could put the rainbirds on overnight in the wee hours of the morning, like we do via a timer at the garden center, so they don’t rain on any visitors’ parades…

    I wonder if the rainbirds have to be turned on manually. Otherwise it would seem to make more sense to water before the arboretum opens. I also wonder if they use rainbirds only at this part of the arboretum–if it is a requirement of the type of plants in this section. — mss

  11. From Gail:

    The scale of the Coastal Redwood is phenomenal, I remember being awe struck when we walked the Muir Woods Trails with our then 9 year old son….Your post and photos were so interesting I had to visit the Strybing website. Now I have another reason to visit California.

    The Gingko Tree with all its knobs, looks like something from Lord of The Rings.

    That’s exactly what I thought about the gingko! I was sure I could see a wise and wizened face in that knobby trunk and expected it to begin moving and talking at any moment. I visited Muir Woods several years ago and it is spectacular (especially if one gets off the main walk way and goes on one of the hiking paths). But the first redwoods I ever saw in my life were these at the Strybing, so they hold a special place in my heart. — mss

  12. From Aiyana:

    Strybing Arboretum looks like a great place to visit. Maybe someday, I’ll be able to see it in person.

  13. From Sarah Laurence (England):

    MSS, I want to visit Strybing Arboretum, lie on that bench and touch that aeonium. The next best thing is surely this stunning blog post. I love California – everything seems to be larger than life. I agree that life on earth can go beyond our wildest imagining. Your photos below are gorgeous too. Sorry to see that storm damage, but that’s nature’s way. Nice to catch up with you!

    You, too. I’ve been enjoying your treks through Devon and Cornwall. The internet is a great boon to us armchair travelers. — mss

  14. From Angelina:

    I want to grow the fuzzy one. I think growing natives is great but I can’t commit to only natives. I just can’t do it. Lots of good things have happened for all of us by sharing the plant love.

    Such as tomatoes and potatoes. I’m very happy that they made it to North America and Europe.

  15. From John (Las Vegas):

    Love your blog! Your photos are awesome. The clarity and composition are really amazing. What type of camera setup do you use?

    Thanks. Most of the photos on this blog were made with a Nikon Coolpix 4300. However, I just got a new camera for my birthday, a Canon PowerShot A650IS. I’m just learning the ins and outs of it. All the photos in this post were taken with the Canon. I like using the macro mode and the AV mode (so I can play with the f-stop settings). I always crop or resize the photo so that they will load faster. With the new Canon, the raw photos are 4000×3000 pixels. So the photos you see on my site are 1/10th the original size. — mss

  16. From Outdoor Park Benches:

    Wow. I love the photo of the aeonium. It is huge.