Last updated 4/12/2007 at Noon
Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas began life as the 30-acre estate of Charles and Ruth Larabee. The couple, who were world travelers, gathered an enviable collection of exotic plants during their trips and then used the various plants to landscape their property. Some of those plants included rare finds such as cork oaks and cycads.
The Larabees had a goal to teach young children about nature and as Scout leaders used their own property as a classroom. When Mrs. Larabee died in 1957 she left the residence and gardens to San Diego County. Quail Botanical Gardens Foundation was established three years later. It is now a private foundation with nonprofit 501(c)(3) status. The gardens are hidden away between housing developments, but when you visit you feel that you are worlds away.
“Quail Botanical Gardens is dedicated to the conservation of rare and endangered plants from across the globe,” reads their mission statement. The park, still 30 acres, is home to some of the most botanically important plants in the world and offers fifteen different gardens within five world climate regions. A ‘Seeds of Wonder’ garden was created with children in mind.
Jane L. Taylor, the creator of the 4-H Club Children’s Garden at Michigan State University, inspired this special garden and took part in the planning. The Seeds of Wonder garden opened in April 2003 and is the West Coast’s first interactive children’s garden. This garden is also the venue for special family events throughout the year.
The children who were with me were especially interested in the building with succulents growing on the roof. They also had a great time at the Baby Dinosaur Forest, which is filled with sculpture, dinosaur ‘eggs’ and a place to actually dig and discover dinosaur footprints. The children were also fascinated with the topiary plants in the forms of horses and other animals.
The most unusual garden area within the park is the tropical and subtropical climates. It’s filled with waterfalls, tall palm trees and a variety of tropical plants. I couldn’t even begin to count the many varieties of exotic plants. A large plant called a ‘Runde cycad’ has leaves like swords and sprouts a pineapple-looking cone from the center. Cycads are among the oldest plants in the world.
A few minutes at the tropical gardens and you’ll forget that you are surrounded by suburbs. A maze of trails winds throughout the park and we were grateful for the many benches that were located on the trails.
We saw a forest of ‘cork oaks,’ which are indigenous to the Mediterranean region. This tree lives to be about 150 years old. In some countries the thick and rugged bark of the cork oak is stripped and used to make wine corks. The park’s cork oaks are riddled with woodpecker holes and soft to the touch.
At the bamboo forest the size of the plants is overwhelming. Quail Gardens boasts the largest collection of bamboo plants in the United States. Bamboo is not a tree or a shrub but is actually a giant member of the grass family. The plant has many uses: bamboo is used as scaffolding in China, the shoots are edible and wine is made from the plant itself.
Quail Garden plants are labeled with names and locality and some with unusual facts. You’ve heard of capers? Those tiny green balls that add a unique flavor to food? Look for the ‘caper bush’ and the label will explain that the ‘caper bush’ flower buds are used for the condiment.
Don’t miss the forest of ‘dragon trees.’ These curious trees have smooth bare trunks and sprout green leaves at the very top. Dragon trees are indigenous to the Canary Islands, where a folktale explains that the red sap is the blood of dragons. The trees live to be several hundred years old.
The park is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily and is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. There is a picnic area in the children’s garden. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of every month.
Quail Botanical Gardens
230 Quail Gardens Drive