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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.