Tag Archives: Balboa Park

piece o’ history

Here’s the latest addition to the garden, a small chunk of the House of Hospitality in Balboa Park, a small chunk of San Diego architectural history.

In the late 1990s the city rehabilitated the building, one of many historic structures built as temporary exhibition spaces for the 1915 Panama-PacificCalifornia Exposition. The exhibit halls weren’t really intended to be a landmarks to pass into time immemorial. But the city has grown attached to these examples of Churrigueresque architecture, and the buildings are actively preserved.

(“Churrigueresque” refers to the Spanish/Catalan architect José Benito de Churriguera, who developed a fairly elaborate Rococo style of ornament that was picked up in Colonial Mexico. Bertram Goodhue and Carleton M. Winslow, the architects who worked on the Exposition, studied the style in Mexico and brought it a few miles north of the border. The over-the-top plaster details made for dramatic and escapist exposition buildings, but the details are high maintenance and can begin to fail over the years. It got to the point that the ornamentation was falling off the buildings and threatening to ka-bonk passers-by.)

“Preservation” of the building went through several phases, and eventually employed the wrecking ball. The old House of Hospitality was demolished and a new one erected in its place. To make sure that the new building closely resembled the original the old ornamentation was removed from the buildings and casts made. The new ornamentation is now made of glass-fiber-reinforced-concrete instead of the original horsehair-reinforced plaster.

Rather than landfilling the old architectural ornamentation, the interesting chunks were sold off to benefit the preservation efforts. And it was on a frantic Saturday morning in 1997 where we were able to fight off some of the most aggressive shoppers I’ve ever encountered to pick up this piece of local history. I’m pretty sure that my chunk of history comes from the tower in the photo above, from around the arches.

The fragment was really cool, but it sat in various corners of the house and my studio as we decided what to do with it. Last month we finally decided to liberate the piece back to the outdoors. Here’s its probably final resting place, attached to a long blank stretch of fence above the fishpond.

I don’t typically go in for lots of garden art or pieces of fake Roman artifacts sprinkled around a garden. But I was happy with how this relatively small chunk of Balboa Park serves as a cool focal point for a part of the garden presided over by a long, plain fence.

In demolishing the original building and dispersing its surfaces the city has managed an odd sort of preservation. Zoos and botanical gardens sometimes have the sad burden of keeping alive species that no longer exist in the wild. And my back yard holds a piece of a building that exists only in a facsimile of the original.

botanical side trip

While I was visiting San Diego’s Earth Day celebrations on Sunday, I took a quick detour into Balboa Park’s Botanical Building. It dates back to the 1914-15 Panama Pacific Exposition, and lays claim to being one of the largest lath structures in the world.



It was an odd feeling to leave the sun-drenched celebration of sustainable living outside and shift gears into the shaded, misted, and heavily watered Botanical Building. Humid and tropical, the interior reminded me of the over-watered vision of paradise that many people still think of when they think of California. Palms, cycads, begonias, orchids and other tropicals and subtropicals lazed in the shade or reached for the light dozens of feet overhead.

I usually go to public gardens and keep an eye out for things I’d like to have in my own garden. Gardens are amazingly democratic that way. If you look hard enough, you can often find some of the rarest plants, especially now with the web available to help source them.

In these days of looming water rationing, however, I felt a little queasy that the Botanical Building was showcasing all sorts of water-intensive plants San Diegans are trying not to fixate on so much these days. Our average temperatures enable the growth of these plants, our regular rainfall does not.

As I was thinking about that queasiness, I realized that many of the Balboa Park buildings nearby are museums that are full of unique objects or things that would be so far beyond my means to buy. The resources of these museums are focused on giving the public access to things and ideas they might not ordinarily encounter. I decided to try to think of the Botanical Building that way, as a sort of botanical museum. Although I could probably find many of its plants if I searched hard enough–and a few of them are actually totally common–I decided to try to look at and appreciate the plants as if they were museum objects I didn’t need to own.

And as my indignation started to lift, I started to be appreciative. Wasn’t it great that people in the city have a place where they can go visit some interesting plants but not have to worry about watering and caring for them? And the Botanical Building is free! If people decide to create little pockets of paradise at home, they don’t need to do their whole gardens this way. A little shaded corner could give you a lot of the same sense of coolness and shelter that the Botanical Building does.

In addition to the big lath house, Balboa Park offers a number of other plantings, including two succulent gardens. So it’s not like the park spends all its resources pimping an outdated vision of Southern California. And there’s value in seeing an old-school planting of this sort to help appreciate how local ideas about gardening have shifted.

So…back to my visit. Lots of things were in flower, but I ended up focusing on plants with variegated leaves that were used throughout the building. No forest would have so many variegated plants in so small a space, but this “garden museum” did a nice job in showcasing some of the botanical world’s interesting foliage patterns. Take a look…

(As usual you click on the images to enlarge them, especially if the signs in the thumbnails are too small to read…)
















Iresine herbstii





earth day fair

Yesterday was the big city Earth Day fair here in town at Balboa Park. Buoyed by temperatures in the 80s, tens of thousands of people came out to celebrate.


Getting to the park required some form of travel, which for many people meant participating in a three mile traffic jam to exit at the park. (Just a little bit of irony in people in getting into their internal combustion powered vehicles to celebrate the earth, don’t you think?)

With the main core of Balboa Park dedicated to pedestrians and the fair, parking a car there was pretty impossible. The organizers had arranged for remote parking and shuttles, which seemed to be working well.


I rode my scooter, which made parking in the unused space between cars easy. I give myself a few brownie points for driving something that’s pretty fuel-efficient, though in reality a carload of people in a Hummer would have used about the same amount of gas to get there. I’m trying to get greener, really. (All of you reading this, hold me to it–Guilt works. So does an appeal to my sense of the greater good.)


In the end, though, even on a hot day, the way to get there was on two feet–or two wheels. Cars were barred from entering the core of the park, and there was free valet parking for bicycles. Yeeha!





Once you got there you had your choice of 400-plus booths. Native plant society? Check. Landscape contractors specializing in low-water landscapes? Several. Information on greener residential construction practices (including solar energy)? Or on most of the public natural parklands around the county? Or on converting your car to a purely electric vehicle? Absolutely.


Left: A 1930s (1932?) Rolls Royce that has been turned into a purely electric vehicle.


On such a warm day I felt really sorry for the person in this garbage can costume that was meant to draw attention to city waste issues. But he or she was incredibly perky all the time I watched. Better than the wilted guy in the banana suit nearby.


One of the kid-friendly booths was this hands-on demonstration of paper-making using recycled paper. I watched a girl of probably no more than five staring at the little sheet of paper that she’d just made, like it was the most magical object in the world.


And of course there were booths to buy earthly stuff: water storage systems (a little pricey at over $6 per gallon of capacity), electric bicycles, cool succulents, sandals, teeshirts, kettle corn… Okay, some of the offerings were more opportunistic than they were green, but hey, it’s a festival. The home-made lemonade stand caught my interest, but even by not long after noon, they were sold out. Waaah.

Events like this are interesting to see what’s being pushed as the latest greatest thing, and some of the green construction technologies were pretty big. Fifteen years ago an event like this would have been filled with people demonstrating their double-paned window systems. Yesterday I might have seen one outfit offering a specialized version of insulated glazing. That goes to show how what may have seemed cool and exotic a decade ago can become commonplace–and even part of regulations. It gives me hope that we’re seeing a lot of people working on some of our big problems. And what’s considered a boutique industry this year might be common as dirt in a decade. Solar-electric kettle-corn storage systems, anyone?

Crowds or not, I always enjoy going to Balboa Park. Here are just a few random sights. I’ll post tomorrow on what was going on in the botanical building, seemingly oblivious to the Earth Day happenings.


Always a crowd-pleaser, the wild trunks of the Australian tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) were drawing photographers every few minutes. I’ve loved this plant ever since I saw it in the 1970s at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. I might have room for one if I nuke everything else in the back yard…


The park is devoting itself more to California native plants. Here’s a new planting of bush poppy (Dendromecon, probably harfordii) with a groundcover ceonothus.


In my cloistered life a tightly cropped patch of lawn is a pretty exotic sight. And then add lawn bowlers on top of that. Wow. Not things I see every day. The park is always great for keeping my eyes open…

bird's nest fern

Ferns are some of my favorite plants. Their delicate leaves and strong architectural forms keep me looking at them. The little ginkgo-shaped leaves and black stems of the maidenhair fern have to be right up there among my favorite kinds of fern.

But with all the delicate-looking ferns to choose from, what’s got to be another of my favorite is the bird’s nest fern (Asplenium sp.). Here are some closeups of the sides of the undivided spears of a specimen at San Diego’s Balboa Park.





balboa park's desert garden

January can be an amazing month for succulents and other desert plants. Many aloes and agaves explode into bloom, and plants with ephemeral foliage are green with leaves in ways you don’t often see them.

balboa-park-succulent-bloom-overviewSan Diego’s Balboa Park houses one of the prime local collection of cacti, succulents and other desert dwellers from around the world. The Desert Garden, the larger of its two succulent gardens, was established in 1976, but many of the plants are senior citizens much older than the age of the garden.



Aloes star in its January landscape, with red and orange torches of flowers that double as hummingbird magnets.


And shown here, lurking in the shadows, is one of the local hummingbirds, staking its territory.



Among the big, mature specimens are several dragon trees, Dracaena draco. In this first photo, on the near trunk, you can see a reddish patch where the plant’s red sap has dried. When cut, these plants ooze a fluid that in some European legends was purported to be dragon’s blood, hence the plant’s name (draco = dragon).



This is a public garden, and so it’s subject to funding glitches and battles over civic priorities. I’d consider the garden to be in great condition considering those limitations.

One thing I would have loved to have seen, though, would be more plant labels. I encountered so many interesting species, but very few of them had name tags. I have this thing about needing to know the name of a plant–Call me compulsive. But the lack of labels drove me crazy. I realize, however, that tags don’t come cheap. And in a wide-open public garden, labels can walk away with pieces of succulents in the hands of evil plant addicts.


One of the plants that was labeled was this Natal Bottlebrush, Greyia sutherlandii. A bit scrappy-looking as a plant, but what great flowers!

Also labeled was the Madagascar ocotillo, Alluaudia procera. I loved the spiral patterning of its spines.

Another problem with this being a public garden is that there are quite a few specimens where people’s temptations to carve their initials in the plant life got the better of them. This euphorbia was scarred many times over. But that wasn’t going to stop it from blooming.



After visiting the garden I was surprised by how many shots I’d racked up in the camera. And for some reason, the majority of them were verticals. Is there something about succulents–particularly the upright-growing kinds that mimic the way a human stands–that scream out for photographing them in an upright orientation?


Some yuccas, I think, with spent bloom stems.


Boojum trees, Fouquieria columnaris, native to Baja California. This plant is in the same genus as the California desert’s spectacular ocotillo, which interestingly isn’t related to the Madascar ocotillo, above.


Aloes and kalanchoes in bloom.

balboa-park-succulent-looking-towards-florida-canyonThe main garden is a flat, easy stroll over wide decomposed granite pathways. As part of a recent expansion, the garden now also includes this switchback down into Florida Canyon, also part of Balboa Park. The plants along the descent are still young, but should look spectacular in a decade or so.

Not everyone in the world loves cactus and succulents. They might point to the defensive spines many of the plants have, and they might say the sculptural shapes of the plants don’t look soft and cozy like leafy shrubs or fragrant roses. balboa-park-succulent-spiny-rosesNext to the Desert Garden is Balboa Park’s rose garden. During springtime, thirty seconds of walking would take you from the world of cactus and succulents to a garden manic with flowers and heavy with the aroma of roses. But on this bright January day, the adjacent roses were pruned down to naked stems and piercing thorns. It was the cactus and succulents that looked warm and welcoming.

The Desert Garden is located across Park Boulevard from the Natural History Museum on Balboa Park’s museum row. The garden has no walls, no entry fee, and is open 24/7, 365 days of the year.

If the 2.5 acres of the Desert Garden isn’t enough of a cactus and succulent fix, cross Park Boulevard and take a stroll over to the Balboa Park Club, maybe ten minutes on foot, and take in the parks original 1935 cactus garden, which, according to the park’s website, was established “under the direction of [San Diego gardening legend] Kate Sessions for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.” There you’ll find “some of the largest cactus and succulent specimens in the Park,” along with a nice collection of proteas.