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Top Five California Gardens

The Golden State's best public gardens showcase rhododendrons, roses, and even a few weeds.

Flowering crabapple at San Francisco's Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park, image
Photo credit
Photo: Saxon Holt, courtesy Strybing Arboretum
Photo caption
Flowering crabapple creates an explosion of pink at San Francisco's Strybing Arboretum.

5. The Gardens at Lake Merritt, Oakland, Calif.

PARDON OUR WEEDS. NO HERBICIDES USED IN THE PARK, announces a sign at this oasis near the shores of a bejeweled lake. You can wander past rows of vegetables, piles of compost, and, yes, weeds. You may prefer the ruffly red rhododendrons, the three mini‐waterfalls by the serene Torii Gate, the twisted bonsai, or the fragrant lavender in the Sensory Garden, but to me the dark green Swiss chard is a thing of beauty. 666 Bellevue Ave., Oakland, Calif. (510) 238‐3208,

4. McKinley Rose Garden, Sacramento, Calif.

Some 1,000 roses thrive here on hot—and I mean hot—Sacramento summers. Enter under an arching trellis covered with climbing roses. The grass walkways and well-ordered beds make this the perfect place to take photos of weddings, Mother’s Day gatherings, and, of course, roses. When I stand in this well‐loved garden and listen to the sounds of tennis balls being smacked on the court and ducks in the nearby pond squabbling over bits of bread thrown by kids, I know I’m home. 3330 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento, (916) 808‐5200,

3. Berkeley Rose Garden, Berkeley, Calif.

OK, I like rose gardens! This beauty is a hillside temple to roses. You can’t see the blooms from the street, so I love the thrill of strolling to the edge of Euclid Avenue and seeing terraces of roses dropping away into a canyon beneath me. The roses face west, like spectators in an amphitheater, toward the Golden Gate Bridge. I sit on a warm wooden bench in the sun, surrounded by the sweet scent of roses and the wisteria that hangs from a craftsman‐style arbor curving along the top rim. 1200 Euclid Ave., Berkeley, Calif., (510) 981-5150,

2. San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, San Francisco, Calif.

Every time, I head straight to the Garden of Fragrance and rub the leaves of scented plants, especially the pungent pelargonium that smell like chocolate, mint, and lemons. You are allowed, encouraged even, to touch and scratch leaves. Honest. Next I escape to the moon‐viewing garden and sit by the pond. Redwoods? Got them—plus mosses, succulents, and camellias. There’s always a new winding path to discover. Golden Gate Park, near Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way, San Francisco, (415) 661‐1316,

1. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, Calif.

The perfect blend of art and nature. The day I was there I saw an exhibit of paintings by John Constable inside the cool, high‐ceilinged gallery. I admired Constable’s tidy green English landscapes, big‐clouded skies, and mills on rivers. Then I wandered outside into the blazing Southern California heat under a clear sky and found myself in a bizarroland where gigantic cacti loomed over me like loony sculptures. A meandering walk led to the serene Japanese Garden, where a moon bridge across a pond cast a perfect circle of bridge‐above and reflection‐below. 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, Calif., (626) 405‐2100,

This article was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.