Angus StewartA small piece of Australia at California’s Taft-Ojai Gardens

On a trip to California earlier this year I had the good fortune to meet a very interesting Australian expatriate plant lover and horticulturist called Jo O’Connell. She has established an excellent niche nursery called Australian Native Plants at Casitas Springs near Santa Barbara, in order to grow a range of Australian plants. These are currently in hot demand as a result of the severe drought in California.

Australian Native Nursery, Ojai California

Australian Native Plants Nursery, Ojai, California

As well as growing an extensive range of Australian plants, she and husband Byron also run a guest cottage next door, complete with a garden of interesting and unusual Antipodean flora. Just for a bit of trivia, on a hill overlooking the property was Johnny Cash’s first family home. Australian plants have long been a part of the Californian landscape and Jo has a thriving garden design business that is introducing an incredibly wide range of interesting plants.

Mediterranean climate plants

Mediterranean climate plants that attract birds and have potential as cut flowers

Mediterranean climate plants

Mediterranean climate plants

But back to Jo and her intriguing story. She ended up in California after she was asked to come over 20 years earlier to work as a horticulturist/landscape designer for a multimillion dollar private garden. Local philanthropist John Taft had decided to build a series of gardens to feature the plants from Mediterranean climates from around the world that attracted birds and had potential as cut flowers. According to the excellent American philanthropic tradition, the gardens were established under an entity called the Conservation Endowment Fund and there has been collaboration with various environmental organizations.

The gardens cover around 73 hectares (180 acres) and are open by appointment only, after some local controversy involving the neighbouring properties. Set amongst stately groves of ancient native oak trees, the valley in which the gardens were created is surrounded by a spectacular landscape of hills punctuated by rounded granite boulders.

Australian Garden at Taft-Ojai Gardens

Australian Garden at Taft-Ojai Gardens

Grove of grass trees in the Australian Garden at Taft-Ojai Gardens

Grove of grass trees in the Australian Garden at Taft-Ojai Gardens

Australian Garden at Taft-Ojai Gardens

Australian Garden at Taft-Ojai Gardens

The Australian Garden is Jo’s pride and joy as she recalls collecting unusual and interesting Australian plants from back home, as well as those that had already found their way to California. A fabulous grove of mature grass trees provides one of the wow factor plantings of the gardens.

Grevillea at the Australian Garden

Grevillea at the Australian Garden

Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris)

Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris)

Various members of the Proteaceae family such as grevilleas, hakeas and dryandras provide profuse displays of flowers that attract the nimble hummingbirds that dart from plant to plant. A group of Queensland bottle trees (Brachychiton rupestris) also provide a focal point.

Of course I was fascinated by the Australian Garden and the opportunity to see various familiar species thriving under foreign conditions. However, I was also captivated by the collections of plants from other parts of the world.

African Garden

Aloes with African bulbs and perennial plants in the African Garden

Aloe plants in the African Garden

Aloe plants in the African Garden

Aloe plants in the African Garden

Bird attracting aloe flowers in the African Garden

Aloe plants in the African Garden

Aloe plants in the African Garden

Aloes of all descriptions are another important group, and are the feature of the African Garden. These amazing plants come in all manner of foliage and flower variations. The tubular flowers are, like many Australian plants, adapted to bird pollination and again, it was irresistible to watch the hummingbirds that frequented these stately succulents. There are all manner of African bulbs and perennials underplanted around the aloes to further appeal to the ardent plant person.

Local Californian flora has been retained on surrounding land

Cactus Garden with local Californian flora retained on surrounding land

Cactus Garden

Cactus Garden

The native plants of California and other regions of the southern parts of the USA are another important element of the project. I was particularly attracted to the cactus gardens, having spent time in the high desert country of southern California on past trips. The indigenous flora had also been retained as the backdrop for the gardens and this alone makes the gardens worthy of a visit.

Cactus Garden

Cactus Garden

Cactus Garden

Cactus Garden

It is impossible to capture the scope and detail of these amazing gardens in a short article like this. From a design point of view I have to say that the extensive mass plantings elevated this from a collection of plants to a captivating landscape of unique atmosphere. I can certainly recommend seeking out the Taft Gardens if you are ever in the Santa Barbara region as well as a visit to Jo O’Connell’s fabulous Australian plant nursery and gardens.

Design elements set the gardens apart from

Design elements set the gardens apart from being just a collection of plants

Aloe in full bloom in the African Garden

Aloe in full bloom in the African Garden

 

For details of the Australian Native Plants Nursery Garden Stay click HERE.

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Angus Stewart

About Angus Stewart

Gardening Australia TV presenter, author of 'Creating an Australian Garden', 'Australian Plants for Year-round Colour' and 'Let's Propagate', garden travel guide, native plant specialist and breeder. Central Coast, NSW. Find out lots more about native plants at Gardening with Angus.

4 thoughts on “A small piece of Australia at California’s Taft-Ojai Gardens

  1. Fascinating to see mature grass trees growing in California. I wonder if they were grown from seed and, if so, how old they were?

    • Hi I brought the seeds over when I first arrived in 1989 and also collected some seeds from existing Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata growing at John Tafts’ house garden in 1989-90. So they are seedling growing from 26 years ago. Jo

      • Hi Jo
        Thanks for your reply. I live in Perth, Western Australia and have grown a few of our local grass tree species from seed mainly for revegetation purposes. I haven’t grown any for long enough to flower but have accepted that it probably would take longer than 20 years for our most common species, Xanthorrhoea preissii, to produce a trunk and flower.
        The photo of your quadrangulatas, some with multiple crowns is quite stunning!
        Regards Dave

        • Hello again Dave,
          They are a mix of Xanthorrhoea preissii and Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata and we have been getting flowering on them once they are planted sometimes in about 6 years – some later of course but this group flower non stop now!
          Cheers Jo

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