Quail Botanical Gardens

By Geoff Stein
April 1, 2015

San Diego Botanical Gardens (aka Quail Botanical Gardens) is one of my favorite southern California gardens to visit. The following article serves as an introduction to these beautiful gardens.

There are several botanical gardens I frequent for photography and to see new and exciting plants. The two closest to me are among the best in the state, if not the entire country: the Huntington Botanical Gardens, and the Los Angeles Arboretum & Botanic Gardens, which are only a few miles from each other. But the next-best botanical garden on my list is about a 3-hour trip each way, near San Diego: Quail Botanical Gardens, a rapidly evolving and beautiful garden in the city of Encinitas about 45 minutes north of San Diego, overlooking the coast of the Pacific Ocean.

This botanic garden is located on 30 acres of prime real estate in one of the nicest coastal communities in southern California. The gardens were originally private, belonging to the Larabee family and contained a wide variety of rare tropicals and exotics the Larabees collected from around the world. After the owner's death, the County of San Diego was left in charge of the gardens and dedicated it as an official botanical garden in 1957.


Quail Garden scenes on one of the many trails leading off towards areas with native landscaping


Continuing on the trails one comes across some of the native plants: Cneonothus tomentosa, Blue Bush (Maireana sedifolia), and native Yuccas, here blooming with Encinitas in the background

I first discovered Quail Gardens in the mid-1990s, after it became an official non-profit conservationist garden, and I have visited it at least once a year ever since. At about the same time, I joined the bamboo society, and I found Quail Gardens was "bamboo central" for the southwestern U.S. Until recently Quail hosted a semi-annual bamboo sale that was one of the most popular and exciting garden sale events I have ever attended. The interest, enthusiasm and craving for new bamboos was amazing and Quail was a great place to meet other bamboo enthusiasts. Quail still holds frequent sales hosted by other groups that I have been involved with such as the palm and cycad societies, and I am sure there are other plant groups that meet there as well (they hold an orchid fair and a daylily show and sale during the summers.) Quail Gardens hosts a number of ‘festivals' during the year, including a chocolate festival, wine festival, insect festival etc. And their annual fall plant sale is a very popular event.


Dendrocalamus gigantea, one of the world's large bamboo species, is thriving at Quail Gardens. Third photo is of Fargesia nitida, a tight clumper with powdery blue stems

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Dendrocalamus minor with the ocean in the background; middle photo shows one of several large groves of running bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax in this photo); Guadia angustifolia has very ornamental thick culms

Additionally they offer various art and photography classes, classes on certain plant types, conservation and landscaping classes, bonsai, woodworking etc. They have a library, though I have to admit I have never seen it or even knew they had one until I saw it mentioned on their website.

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Image Image Quirky ivy-covered garden sculptures

For me, the garden provides a chance to escape the cooler and hotter climate of the gardens closer to me, and enjoy wandering through a large botanical garden with the moderating influence of coastal weather. This unique climate enables the gardens to support various tropical and succulent species (my favorites) to grow outdoors that would not be able to do so in the larger, more inland gardens.


nice collection of ornamental aloes in the African succulent garden

Every time I visit the gardens, it seems they have expanded, particularly in their bamboo collection area and in their very large native garden sections. I still think they have more room to expand--not all 30 acres appears to be fully used or planted yet. They have a nice children's garden area complete with some structures with beautiful succulent gardens growing right on their roofs. The tropical/jungle section is still one of my favorites, though it is pretty much the same year after year. This part is complete with a large waterfall and a lookout on top, where one can overlook the entire gardens and much of the surrounding landscape as well. The bamboo gardens almost always have new bamboo to see as well as huge, mature clumps of some of their older impressive plants. I can wander about this section for a long time, and catch glimpses of the ocean from certain areas. The succulent garden surrounds the central parking lot and is full of various and beautiful aloes, agaves, cacti and euphorbias. The area is loosely organized into geographic sections, including Mexico, Madagascar and the New and Old World Deserts. An herb garden, Australian and New Zealand section, a South African plant area, an African section, and one of the largest subtropical fruit gardens I have seen in any botanical garden are also part of Quail Gardens.

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Some of Quail's succulent areas (middle photo is of Mexican Garden, and right photo is the Madagascan succulents)

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largest Cyphophoenix nucele (left, from New Caledonia) and Pritchardia schattaueri (middle, from Hawaii) in California as well as very old Rhopalostylis baueris (right, from New Zealand)

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more large specimen plants: Encephalartos cycads (natalensis and altensteinii), Agathis robusta (Australian conifer) and Beaucarnea recurvata (Pony Tail 'Palm') shown here in full seed

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The Australian garden has some of the nices Banksias I have seen (left); Pilosocereus magnificus, a rare Brazilian cactus; just a small part of the fruit garden- the banana section (right)

Lastly, one of the best things about driving all the way down to Encinitas to see this garden are the nearby succulent, palm and cycad nurseries--some of the best nurseries in the entire state of California are just minutes away from Quail Gardens. Someday I may have to move to this area should I ever decide to get serious about growing, photographing and writing about plants (and give up my day job).

  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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