Hidden California Gardens along the Gold Coast

by Country Inns & Suites
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Many travelers to Southern California choose the opulent “Gold Coast” of Orange County as a favorite destination for its water sports, shopping, entertainment and sunshine. Blessed with a near-perfect Mediterranean climate, the Gold Coast also boasts a botanical diversity seldom encountered. For a sampling of this green bounty, three enchanting California gardens welcome visitors year-round.  By Sharon Lovejoy

 Sherman Gardens

Sherman Gardens is a 2-acre oasis just off the busy Pacific Coast Highway in the seaside town of Corona del Mar. Inside the ornate iron gates, formal beds, ablaze with masses of seasonal flowers, and groupings of artistically designed terra-cotta containers and hanging baskets greet guests. In one large pot, ruffled cabbages consort with pansies and velvety plectranthus nestles with violet streptocarpus, multicolored English primroses and peach-toned alstroemerias. Bacopa, variegated needlepoint ivy and long tendrils of pink-flowered mandevilla ‘Alice du Pont’ cascade from moss-lined baskets, crowded with flowers in varying shades of blue.

In the heart of the Sherman Gardens, a lofty wooden lath house shelters a collection of shade plants where fancy hybrid begonias, Australian tree ferns, moosehorn and staghorn ferns, and rare palms flourish. An old-fashioned tropical conservatory encloses a sparkling pond filled with jewel-toned koi. Nearby are tall stands of torch ginger from Celebes and Java, a collection of carnivorous plants, orchids, bromeliads, waxen anthuriums, and glossy bird’s-nest ferns the size of an overstuffed ottoman.

A leisurely stroll along the brick and stone pathways leads guests into a Discovery area with shelves of container-grown fragrance plants. Although this space was designed for the blind, few can resist the temptation to stop, touch and sniff.

Cacti and succulents grow near the old adobe that houses the Sherman Library, devoted to the study of the Pacific Southwest. Golden barrel cactus, orange-flowered aloes, euphorbia and agave stand sentry over shallow terra-cotta bowls filled with succulents.

Most of the plants are labeled with the genus, species, common name and country of origin. A small pamphlet, “A Guide to the Garden,” delves into the history and ethno-botany of many of the plants.

 Hortense Miller Garden

Winding roads with breathtaking views of the Laguna Beach coastline lead to the hillside Hortense Miller Garden. This 2 1⁄2-acre sanctuary, perched on the upper slopes of Boat Canyon, is as much for the birds and critters as for the garden lover. Dedicated docents and Master Gardeners, versed in both horticulture and the natural history of the surrounding California hills and canyons, lead tours of this wild and varied habitat.

More than 40 years ago, Hortense Miller began her life’s work of creating a garden that would one day feature 1,500 plant species. Introduced and naturalized exotics mingle here with California’s stalwart natives.

Visitors meander along ribbon-thin trails flanked by mermaid roses and salvias, down steep pathways, and into sheltered, wisteria-draped terraces. Guests can rest on strategically placed benches and enjoy the pungent scents of the coastal sage scrub and eucalyptus and the songs of nearly 100 bird species. From the canyons below the gardens, visitors often hear the insistent barking of foxes, the howling of coyotes or the deep, resonant clucking of Mrs. Miller’s wild ravens demanding their afternoon meal of stew meat and cheese sandwiches.

This Gold Coast garden is showiest during late winter and spring when the steep slopes are starred with colorful bulbs and a rainbow-hued blanket of California native annuals. Because of the vast selection of plants and the variety of growing conditions, visitors are sure to find something in bloom every month of the year. 

Mission San Juan Capistrano

No landscape better symbolizes the romantic notion of a typical early California garden than the enclosed courtyards of the 225-year-old Mission San Juan Capistrano  near the historic El Camino Real.

Behind adobe walls in the sun-drenched interior grounds, riotous flower beds and borders, as brightly colored as a child’s paint box, replace the utilitarian orchards, food crops and vineyards of the early padres.

In the entry plaza, thick hedges of purple Mexican sage, bird-of-paradise, bells of scarlet abutilon and walls festooned with bougainvillea in magenta, pink and carmine attract scores of tourists and iridescent Anna’s hummingbirds. The tiny hummers, whose rasping calls are the voice of these intimate gardens, zip from bloom to blossom, dip into the nectar-filled flowers, and fearlessly defend their territory from both birds and humans.

The gardens, influenced by the padres’ exposure to Mexican farms and the Andalusian cloisters of southern Spain, are divided into walled patios and criss-crossed by axial pathways punctuated by trickling, moss-covered fountains. Six distinct areas embrace an eclectic array of both native and introduced plants, including ancient olive and pepper trees and a rare Southern California Washingtonian palm.

A dedicated corps of volunteer “Gardening Angels,” organized by Museum Programs Director Alana Jolley, devote countless hours to the care and replanting of Mission San Juan Capistrano. The “Angels” enjoy sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with visitors and welcome gardening questions. 

 Sharon Lovejoy’s newest book is Toad Cottages & Shooting Stars: Grandma’s Bag of Tricks–Over 130 Wonder-Filled Activities for Children.