Central Coast Botanical Gardens
Explore the verdant wonders of the Central Coast’s botanical gardens
From Thousand Oaks to San Luis Obispo, these gardens celebrate the biodiversity of Mediterranean-type ecosystems
By Michele Roest
The Central Coast is rich in botanical gardens filled with lush flowering plants, ferns, shrubs, and trees. But the earliest botanical gardens were founded by universities in Italy during the late Renaissance period of the 1540s. They were created for the study of medicinal uses of plants. Later, the cultivation of plants for profit led to academic studies in forestry, landscape architecture, ornamental horticulture, and garden design. Botanical gardens today have become destination spots for millions of tourists who visit them each year.
Botanical gardens in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo Counties focus their efforts on cultivation and preservation of the plants unique to Mediterranean-type ecosystems. There are just five of these zones in the world, and the Central Coast of California, known as the California Floristic Province, is one of them. The others are located in similar latitudinal zones in Central Chile, the Mediterranean Basin, the Cape Region of South Africa, and Southwestern and South Australia. They are home to unusual and globally significant plant diversity and endemic species. All five regions have received international designation as biodiversity hotspots, and share similar climates: short winters and long, dry summers. They also only occur on the west coasts of continents, and benefit from the coastal influence.
Plants in these regions have developed unique adaptations to these conditions, including tolerance to drought. Many are fire-adapted, which turned out to be a good thing for the Ventura Botanical Gardens. “In 2017, the Thomas Fire came right through, 2,000 plants were burned,” laments Barbara Brown, board member of the Ventura Botanical Gardens. Not all the plants survived that massive fire, but many did, persevering despite evident surface charring.
Back in 2005, the City of Ventura provided Grant Park for the 109-acre Ventura Botanical Gardens, which has views of Ojai’s Topa Topa peak as well as the California Channel Islands. Other structures, including a new entrance, welcome center, and giftshop, have been constructed. Long-term plans include building the largest Chilean Garden in the world outside of Chile. “An important component of botanical gardens is conservation,” says Barbara. “By caring for plants from other regions in the world, like our Chilean Wine Palm or our Tecate cypress, botanic gardens help to preserve rare, threatened, and endangered species.”
Also in Ventura County, the Conejo Valley Botanic Garden in the heart of Thousand Oaks hosts 15 different gardens and a hilltop trail with stunning views. Taft Gardens and Nature Preserve, near Lake Casitas, has more than 250 acres of native California habitat and open space. Its Art in Nature program emphasizes their mission to “explore the relationship between humans and their environment.” The Santa Barbara Botanical Garden was founded in 1926. Some parts of the garden and historic structures have been designated as County Historic Landmarks. It, too, places emphasis on plants native to California, northwestern Baja California, and southwestern Oregon, which are considered part of the California Floristic Province. The Pritzlaff Conservation Center, completed in 2019, hosts a state-of-the-art lab for research on molecular plant genetics. It also maintains a seed collection of rare and endangered plant species.
Although not representative of the native flora, the Santa Barbara Mission Rose Garden, located at the Santa Barbara Mission, boasts more than 1,500 rose plants blooming from April to November.
The Santa Ynez Valley Botanic Garden, located in River View Park in Buellton, provides critical habitat for the endangered Western Willow Fly Catcher, which nests nearby. Local residents donated 70 trees that were planted by volunteers to get the garden started. “It’s a great place for all ages to explore,” says Eva Powers, president of the board of directors.
Polish opera singer Ganna Walska purchased a Montecito estate in 1941 and spent the next 43 years creating Lotusland, recognized as one of the 10 best botanical gardens in the world. Lotusland’s plant collections include some species that are now extinct in their native habitats.
The San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden is exclusively devoted to the ecosystems of the five Mediterranean climate regions of the world. The 150-acre garden includes examples of sustainable gardening and water conservation. Workshops include diverse topics from sustainable building design to cultural uses of native plants.
Cal Poly State University’s Leaning Pine Arboretum’s outdoor laboratory was built by 50 years of “Learn by Doing” student projects. An arboretum is a type of botanical garden that is devoted to trees. Leaning Pine Arboretum’s tree collection includes ancient species that were alive during the time of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.
Botanical gardens are dedicated to enhancing awareness and understanding about plants. Most offer children’s gardens, gardening workshops, and special tours. They are good places buy plants; many gardens propagate and sell cuttings from their collections. Botanical gardens that are members of the American Public Gardens Association or the American Horticultural Society offer reciprocal visitation for members. Joining one botanical garden provides free entry to others in the association.
Despite their ancient history, botanical gardens are relevant today. “It was one of the few places people could go during Covid,” says Barbara Brown. “The open spaces were wide enough for people to relax and enjoy being in nature.” Natural areas have proven to be sources of health and wellness in urban areas, and awareness of their importance is growing.
Botanical gardens welcome volunteers, so the next time you’re in the area, consider getting your hands dirty and contributing to the preservation of these incredible collections.
• Ventura Botanical Gardens
567 S. Poli St, Ventura
Admission: $7 (Check website for free admission days)
• Conejo Valley Botanic Garden
400 W. Gainsborough Rd, Thousand Oaks
• Taft Gardens & Nature Preserve
Located off Highway 150 in Oak View
Admission: $10 (Reservation required)
SANTA BARBARA COUNTY
• Santa Ynez Valley Botanic Garden
151 Sycamore Dr, Buellton
• Santa Barbara Botanical Garden
1212 Mission Canyon Rd, Santa Barbara
Admission: $16 for adults, $12 seniors, $10 Students, $8 for youth (3-17)
• Santa Barbara Mission Park and Rose Garden
Laguna St, Santa Barbara
Open: Everyday, sunrise to sunset
• Ganna Walska Lotusland
Located on Cold Spring Rd, Montecito
Admission: $50 Adults, $25 for youth (3-17) (Reservation required)
SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY
• San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
3450 Dairy Creek Rd, San Luis Obispo
Admission: $5 Adults, kids 12 and under free
• Leaning Pine Arboretum
Cal Poly SLO Environmental Horticultural Science Unit, San Luis Obispo