- Author: Michael Bains
The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) is an 86-acre (34.8 hectare) garden in Claremont, California surrounded by the Claremont Colleges. It is roughly 35 miles east of Los Angeles and is my favorite botanic garden in Southern California. The focus of the garden is on California natives and contains natives starting from southern Oregon to western Nevada and extends well south into Baja California.
The garden was originally founded in 1927 by Susanna Bixby Bryant, who established the garden on 200 acres set aside on her family's Orange County ranch and has always been focused on emphasizing California flora.
In 1951 the garden moved to its present location in Claremont which is in Los Angeles County. This was also the time the garden became affiliated with The Claremont Colleges, a relationship that continues today and offers graduate degrees in botany. The garden contains about 2,000 taxa of the approximately 6,000 native plant taxa in California.
Upon arriving at the garden, you are immediately met in the parking lot by several California native trees giving much needed shade during the summer months. Near to my heart are two California Black Walnuts (Juglans californica) shading a short walkway leading to the nursery. They are near to me as I have recently planted one in my own garden in a section I'm devoting to California natives. They are, also, endangered, as their natural habitats become more and more encroached upon by development and grazing.
The garden is broken into 3 main areas. The Indian Hill Mesa is a flat-topped clay hill that sits a short uphill walk above the rest of the garden. Below the Mesa, is an area that runs to the east and leads to the third section that I lovingly refer to as the “North 40”, even though it's 55 acres (22.2 hectares). This area is the largest area and sits the furthest from the entrance.
The garden entrance is just below the Indian Hill Mesa. Here you are met with the beginnings of the desert garden which opens to the west to Fay's Wildflower Meadow. The meadow contains numerous types of wildflowers and is normally in full bloom starting in midwinter into the spring. Unfortunately, due to our recent drought, the meadow has not been able to reach its full glory in the recent past, even leading the garden to give this area supplemental watering. Many California wildflowers, such as California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Lupine (Lupinus albifrons) and Mariposa lily (Calochortus clavitus) require a normal or even excessively heavy rainy season to bloom. California finally received a very wet winter to bring us officially out of our drought and created the first “super bloom” in a great while.
Continuing past Fay's Meadow Garden is the desert garden. Here numerous California desert natives can be found from the Mojave Desert down south into Baja California. There is a network of footpaths running through this area to explore different flora. The area contains Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa with its heavily spiked “clubs” and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia x vaseyi) among other delights. A little further back is the palm oasis consisting of a forest of California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) surrounding a very small pond.
Past the Majestic Oak lies the northern 55 acres of the garden. This is a less cultivated area which allows for a much better sense of how the plants would look in the wild. Since there is minimal supplemental watering done, the best time to see this area is in the winter, especially after we have received some rain that begins, normally, in November.
The various plant communities are well marked; although, it is surprising how noticeable it can be at times moving from one community to the next. The area moves between Southern Chaparral, Foothill Woodlands, Northern Juniper Woodlands, Northern California Chaparral, amongst others. There are also more specific plant communities, such as Torrey Pines (Pinus torreyana),Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia), Junipers (Juniperus occidentalis) and my personal favorite of the Boojum Tree (Fouquieria columnaris). I'm quite certain the Boojum tree has appeared in at least one Dr. Seuss story. Most likely with Sam I am sitting on top of it. It's a single thick trunk that resembles a candle with short pencil-like branches sprouting from it. It's quite a sight.
Climbing back up from the Plant Communities is the Indian Hill Mesa. This area prior to colonization was inhabited by the Serrano. The Serrano people lived in the San Bernardino Mountains, which the garden is at the base of, and in the southern Mojave Desert. The Mesa contains the main structures of the garden and is where most of the garden's organized activities take place.
Throughout the summer, the Butterfly Pavilion is in this area, where native California butterflies are maintained for educational purposes as well as for sheer enjoyment. There is a party where the pavilion is opened and the butterflies released later in the summer. It is a lot of fun, just be sure to watch your step as butterfly squishing is frowned upon.
The Cultivar Garden is, as the name implies, an area that is a bit more “gardened” than other areas. It is meant to show some of the possibilities available with native California plants in a home garden. One of the areas of resistance that I have come across when speaking of natives is the perception that they do not look good in the garden. I think many people see them as weeds, since in their native habitat they go dormant in the summertime and are assumed, by many, to be dead. Combine this with our large nurseries that push non-natives onto the public, even invasive species, and our native flora is becoming scarce indeed. Showing what can be accomplished with minimal summer watering is part of the garden's public education.
The Mesa also contains Benjamin Pond, which is a small pond home to turtles, some koi, and whatever wildlife might need a drink of water. It's not uncommon to run across squirrels, rabbits and the occasional coyote wandering through the garden and the pond offers a water source, as well as, a nice cool place to sit after wandering around the garden on a hot summer day.
The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is also a research garden housing the largest store of California native seeds in the world. They conduct research, both in the laboratory and in the field, and are not immune to creating new cultivars of California natives. The research library contains nearly 40,000 volumes covering a wide range of topics. The garden is not supported by tax payer dollars and relies on grants, donations, admission charges and the Grow Native Nursery, which is open from October to May, when the weather is tolerable for planting.
This garden is quite a gem with a noble mission to save, cultivate and educate with regards to California native plants. I for one support the garden as much as I can and look forward to many years of watching it continue to grow.