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Although only 10 acres in size, the Regional Parks Botanic Garden displays a great diversity of native plants from all over California. Many of these plants are present year-round, but some are more ephemeral, appearing just for a season. A leisurely stroll through the Garden at any time of year will reward you with the beauty and adaptability of California's plants.
Begin your tour at the front entrance to the Visitor Center. Pick up a Garden brochure and then walk around the building to the back patio for a grand view of the Garden.
Extending downslope from the patio is the Valley-Foothill Section, bordered on its far side by Wildcat Creek. Beyond the creek is the Sea Bluff Section, towering behind it the diverse conifers of the Rainforest, Sierra Nevada, and Redwood sections. To the left of the forest, you can see the gray granite boulders of the Sierran alpine rock garden.
Walk east from the Visitor Center to the Desert Section. This section illustrates some of the challenges of growing plants from around the state here in the East Bay hills. For desert plants, the greatest challenge is the heavy clay soil that underlies the Garden. To improve drainage--critical for plants from areas with porous soil--much of the Desert Section is built on raised mounds of gravelly soil. But even these fast-draining mounds cannot compensate for the excess soil moisture that accumulates during our rainy Bay Area winters, so we protect the plants under plastic tents.
Two large "oasis" trees grow in this section: the Arizona cottonwood (Populus fremontii ssp. fremontii) and the California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera). Both grow in desert areas where underground water comes near the surface in seeps or springs. These trees provide shady habitat for other plants and animals in the harsh desert environment.
Green ephedra (Ephedra viridis) grows on a large mound between the trees. This unusual looking plant is a conifer, reproducing through tiny cones and more closely related to pine trees than to the flowering desert shrubs that grow with it in the Garden. Along the main flagstone path through the center of this section, woolly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) bloom with deep blue-purple tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds in summer. Toward the northern edge of the Desert Section, tall Munz chollas (Opuntia munzii) grow on another large mound. One of the reproductive strategies of this cactus is to hitch a ride to a new location as a small segment attached by numerous sharp, hooked spines to animal fur (or human clothing or skin--don't touch!).
Below the Desert Section, you will find a small curving lawn straddling the Valley-Foothill and Santa Lucia sections, where white trilliums (Trillium chloropetalum) bloom in late winter and early spring. Evergreen huckleberry shrubs (Vaccinium ovatum) bloom with small, pink, urn-shaped flowers in spring and bear dark blue-purple berries in late summer. Nearby, check out the large Dutchman's pipe or California pipevine (Aristolochia californica) draped over several small trees and shrubs. In early spring you will see this plant's curious, pipe-shaped blossoms; a little later in spring you might discover the large black and orange caterpillars of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly feeding on the leaves of the pipevine. Even later in the season, look for the large green pipevine fruit. Lovely blue hounds tongue flowers (Cynoglossum grande) bloom near the pipevine in late winter.
If you walk east, back to the main flagstone path, you will come to the Channel Islands Section. There you'll find different varieties of ironwoods (Lyonothamnus floribundus var. floribundus and Lyonothamnus floribundus var. asplenifolius), which are native only to California's Channel Islands. On a mound near the entrance steps of this section, the dangling flower chains of southern silktassel (Garrya veatchii) make a spectacular show in January.
Walking north along the flagstone path toward the Franciscan section, you will see a valley oak (Quercus lobata) growing in a small Native California Meadow. The perennial bunchgrasses in this meadow once clothed parts of our north-facing ridges before the invasion of non-native annual European grasses. In spring, perennial flowers bloom between the bunchgrasses, including Ithuriel's spear (Triteleia laxa) and different species of mule's ears (Wyethia).
In the Santa Lucia Section south of the meadow are two groves of Santa Lucia firs (Abies bracteata). These majestic trees are among the rarest firs in the world. Touch their branches--carefully: The sharp-pointed needles have been used for tattooing by native people. Two other spectacular trees in this section are the western sycamore (Platanus racemosa), with its beautiful jigsaw puzzle-like bark, and the black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera trichocarpa), which in late fall creates a blaze of golden yellow in the center of the Garden.
When you enter the Franciscan Section, follow the winding trail that descends into the small ravine. This section contains many plants that were rescued from construction sites on the San Francisco peninsula. Here you will find numerous manzanitas and more trilliums (Trillium chloropetalum var. giganteum), these bearing flowers of deep magenta. The Franciscan Section also holds many treasures from San Bruno Mountain.
The slope of the Franciscan Section ends at Wildcat Creek, which runs year-round through the Garden. If you're lucky, you might see an East Bay native rainbow trout in the creek. In the summer, this section of the Garden is cool and shady; in the winter, the creek is full of rushing water. Rainy days are exciting and beautiful times to visit the Garden.
The Canyon Section further downstream is the newest and perhaps the most peaceful part of the Garden. Although many of the trees in this riparian habitat are winter-deciduous, there are also summer-deciduous plants here that only emerge in winter. Water-loving California polypody ferns (Polypodium californicum) on the slope next to the wooden boardwalk are lush in the rainy season but die back to their root systems in the summer, an adaptation to our summer-dry Mediterranean climate.
Upstream from the Canyon Section, a series of zig-zag paths leads you up into the Rainforest, Sierran, and Redwood sections. In these sections you'll find the Garden's largest conifers and the plants that live in their cool, moist shade: graceful Western hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla); many types of ferns; various lilies; and two kinds of "redwoods," giant sequoia (Sequioadendron giganteum) and coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). There is another inviting bench in the redwood grove. Much of the ground is covered by spring-flowering redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) and wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), which has spicy-smelling roots but is not related to culinary ginger.
From the Redwood Section you can see the wood and stone Juniper Lodge building, where volunteers are busy on Thursday mornings potting, rooting, sowing seeds, and much more. You can buy native plants at this location on most Thursday mornings between May and December, from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. Or visit our big annual plant sale on the third Saturday in April.
Close to the building is a large raised Bulb Bed. From late summer through fall the plants in this bed are dormant and invisible, and you can only imagine the flowers as you read the promising labels: Calochortus, Fritillaria, and more. But the bed is a treasure to behold in spring, filled with many different Mariposa tulips and other special bulb-forming plants blooming in a variety of colors. Just west of the Bulb Bed, a tiny flower bed explodes with brilliant red firecracker brodiaeas (Dichelostemma ida-maia).
Walk east a short distance from the Bulb Bed to the Seabluff Section. There along narrow paths, you'll see the fragrant bluff wallflower (Erysimum menziesii ssp. concinum) blooming profusely in late winter through spring, as well as many other plants of the California coast.
Stroll south from the Bulb Bed toward the Sierra Nevada Section, on the way admiring the azalea-flowered monkeyflowers (Diplacus grandiflorus) in spring and summer. In the winter, the bare red stems of the American dogwood shrub (Cornus sericea) create a brilliant contrast with the surrounding green lawn. Groves of graceful quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) spread across this section, showing off their bare white bark in winter and rustling their leaves in the slightest summer breeze. Constructing the Sierra Nevada Section was another tough challenge: Instead of the porous, nutrient-poor, granitic soil Sierran plants prefer, this part of the Garden holds the heaviest clays.
The Pond in the Sierra Nevada Section is filled with plants that grow in or near natural ponds. In the late spring and summer, native yellow pond lilies (Nuphar luteum ssp. polysepalum) bloom on top of the water, and the unusual spikes of yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica) grow in the boggy bed that borders the east side of the pond. On sunny days, dragonflies dance above the water.
The remainder of this walk takes you through the Shasta-Klamath Section, home to plants from an area of the state rich in plant diversity. In early spring, the coast fawn lilies (Erythronium revolutum) bloom here. In summer, showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) flowers across the main path from the Visitor Center and in some years feeds larvae of the monarch butterfly. Later in the season, look for the bird-shaped milkweed pods. Just outside the Visitor Center is a grove of majestic Englemann spruce trees (Picea engelmannii) and a changing display of special plants in the ceramic pots near the front door.
Conclude your walk with a look inside the Visitor Center, where you will find various exhibits and notices of interest for our plant-loving friends. We hope you have enjoyed your visit and invite you to come back soon. The Garden has something new to offer every day of every season.
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