Not all botanical gardens have to be large to be impressive, though I admit to being impressed by most large gardens. Sherman Gardens, located on the Pacific Coast Highway in Orange County, California, is one of the most beautifully maintained, exquisite botanical collections in southern California. Yet this small wonder lies camouflaged in a busy, upscale business avenue in Corona Del Mar, less than a mile from the beach, looking more like a small nursery or perhaps a well-landscaped restaurant (it is both, actually) than a serious collection of rare and beautiful tropical plants, succulents and other flowering species. Though I will not be able to do it justice, this article will help to at least somewhat introduce the reader this amazing 2.2 acres of near botanical perfection.


Shermie, the Sherman Gardens mascot, named after Moses Sherman, the mentor and business associate of the gardens founder, Arnold Haskell

When perusing lists of arboretums and gardens to visit in Southern California, one may encounter this garden listed among the other amazing gardens such as the Huntington, Los Angeles Arboretum, San Diego Botanical Gardens, Balboa Park, The Living Desert, Descanso Gardens, South Coast Botanical Gardens, Fullerton Arboretum, the local zoos and wild animal parks, the extensive native collections in arboretums in Claremont and Santa Barbara, along with about a dozen other smaller collections. And that is just how I thought of this garden- a smaller collection. Why would I want to drive an hour in Los Angeles traffic to visit a tiny garden that boasted a restaurant serving high tea and had a library about itself (about 180 degrees opposite from anything even remotely sounded appealing to me)? But after seeing photos posted by one of the landscapers (a local succulent grower and member of the cactus club to which I belonged) I was fairly impressed. Still, I figured at best it was probably a dinky little collection of plants and those photos somehow made it look better than it was. But I wanted to give it the benefit of my doubt. I arrived around noon with a few hours to spare before I had to get to work, figuring that would be more than enough time to just pop in and say I saw the succulent gardens, and leave. Three hours and about 300 photos later, I left in total amazement. How had a place like this been kept off my radar for so long?

Image The unassuming entrance to the gardens

First of all, when you get there, it is not obvious from the road where or what it is. It looked more like an upscale nursery or perhaps an exclusive dining facility that just happened to put some money into their landscaping. The odds of there being anything really beautiful, rare or surprising within its walls seemed nearly infinitesimal. And at first I thought I was right as I walked in to see a small rose garden, a fountain and some nicely arranged flowering plants, all things I really could not care less about. But then I started to notice the impressive collection of huge Staghorn ferns on the walls, the large number of rarer cultivars and variegated plants in pots and in the ground, the nice and even rare palms sticking out of the roof of a shade area and an alarmingly large number of plants I did not immediately recognize... and for good reason- they were rare species or cultivars. The garden has an excellent collection of very rare tropicals, begonias, succulents, ferns, cycads, bromeliads and even some rare palms. It surely couldn't be 2.2 acres... it looked so much smaller from the outside--just a few city lots, perhaps? But it isn't as small as it looks, though I think a large part of the acreage is taken up by the library, restaurant and parking lot. Oh well... if we could just remove those areas, replace them with more garden, the place would be perfect!

begonia 1 begonia 2

Begonia thurstonii (left) and B. verschaffeltii (right) are just two of many dozens of rare species and cultivars growing in Sherman Gardens

sadleria tongue fern

left- Growing Sadleria ferns are one of the reasons lovers of tropical plants move to Hawaii, but here is a perfect specimen growing outdoors in Southern California; right is an excellet example of a Tongue Fern (Pyrrosia lingua Obake), obviously very happy and loaded with spore (brown color on leaves)

camelia fuschia

There are beautifully grown Camellias, blooming early for Southern California (early fall) and dozens of perfectly maintained Fuschias (a plant I cannot keep alive here in inland California)

Cycas circinalis Lepidozamia

Two beautifully grown and very old cycads in Sherman Gardens- left Cycas circinalis and right, Lepidozamia peroffskiana

P superbum P wallichiana

Two of many staghorn ferms adorning the walls of Sherman Gardens.. left Platycerium superbum, and right, a very rare Platycerium elephantosis

brom gardem bromeliads

left is a very rare Neoreglia cultivar and right is a shot of the succulent garden which has many bromeliads growing throughout it

Phoenix reclinata Howeas

Phoenix reclinata (Senegal Date Palm), well pruned and healthy (left); right are a group of Kentia Palms (Howea forsteriana) sticking out the lathe roof of a shade area

C tepejilote needle palm

Two more nice palms at the gardens: left is Chamaedorea tepejilote (Pacaya Palm) grown to perfection and right is one of the largest Needle Palms (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) I have ever seen, also extremely well manicured (not an easy thing to do with a Needle Palm)

rhipsalis trevesia

Rhipsalis cassutha, the hugest one I have ever seen, is in the cactus family (left); Trevesia is a bizzare plant with bat-shaped leaves... never seen this grown in any botanical gardens aside from this one.

There is a relatively large greenhouse full of very well-cared-for tropicals, palms and odds and ends one rarely even encounters in the greenhouses at the Huntington or Los Angeles arboretum. The cycad area does not have a huge variety, but the specimens are enormous and perfectly maintained. There are dozens of beautiful ferns showing off in a climate that is nearly perfect as far as California goes, with some of them being the nicest outdoor examples of ferns I have ever seen outside the tropics. But the best part of all is the succulent and cactus collection, designed, planted and maintained by Matt Maggio who really outdid himself with this masterpiece. The collection is truly living art, with so many colors, shapes, repetitive patterns and unique specimens that I cannot think of any succulent collection to match it at least in terms of appearance. And there are a LOT of very rare and large specimens in that collection. I don't think I would be disappointed had I even traveled from outside the county to see this garden (though perhaps size does matter in that instance). I hope the photos below at least give you a suggestion of this amazing arrangement of succulents and cacti. My only complaint is there wasn't acres and acres of such beautiful succulents. But considering the overall size of the entire Sherman Gardens, this collection is nearly perfect.

insdie greenhouse marantas

two views inside the large Sherman Gardens greenhouse

echeverias succulents

Echeveria elegans planting in artful way (left); more Echeverias on other succulents of color (right)

agaves aloes

Two views of the succulent area- upper predominantly Agaves, and lower mostly Aloes and Euphorbias

art art 2

Living art i n the form of Echeverias, aloes and Senecios

mesembs mesem bowl

Mesemb plantings

The entire gardens is maintained as though it belonged to an anal-retentive billionaire, with just about every leaf and flower in order. I looked briefly to see if the tops of the grass blades had been buffed or polished, but I was being ridiculous. Still it is hard to find anything out of place, a dead branch or fallen leaf on the ground, any plant looking sickly or even anything mislabeled. Most plants were not labeled, which is a good thing as that would certainly have detracted immensely, from an artistic point of view, though it did bother me somewhat since I did not know the names of all of them.

perfection ligularias

succulent garden impeccably maintained (left); Right shows varieties of Ligularias... no dead leaves or any debris seen

The gardens started to come together in the1950s and by the 1970s Sherman Gardens owned the entire city block and the founder, Arnold Haskell, was getting serious about making it into an exceptional botanical collection. It has a large staff of volunteers/ docents and possibly a large staff of paid employees as well. There is a nursery, a nice restaurant and tea garden, a shop and library and many wide, attractive brick walkways for strolling about the grounds. The curator and horticulturalists give lectures and classes and there is a busy calendar of "cultural events," workshops, classes and flower shows, including some national shows.


Courtyard outside restaraunt, with greenhouse and lathe house in background

cement sculpture

one of many beautiful and extremely well done cement and wood sculptures of birds found throughout the gardens

So if you live in southern California you HAVE to see this garden. And if you live in the U.S., you also should really visit as well, especially if you are visiting California for any reason. I can promise you will not be disappointed.

For more information about Sherman Gardens, visit their website.