Plant Passport – San Diego

Plant Passport- San Diego Featured Image
Plants in San Diego

Welcome to Plant Passport, your weekly guide to travel destinations for plant-loving humans! In this column, we’ll cover destinations around the world that have offerings plant people will appreciate (in addition to the usual travel stops). Think stunning botanical gardens, quirky indie plant shops, and unexpected finds.

Our first stop is in San Diego, California! For plant-loving visitors, San Diego offers a selection of historic botanical gardens, huge fields of flowers, and some of the most unique plant shops in the country. After checking out these highlights for plant people, you’ll be booking a ticket for more than just the sunshine and beaches.

Balboa Park Gardens

Balboa Park Botanical Gardens

A staple for all visitors to San Diego, Balboa Park is full of museums, art galleries, restaurants, and, most importantly for us, botanical gardens. It also happens to be close to downtown and right next door to the world-famous San Diego Zoo. There are four main stops within the park for plant lovers of all kinds, and all but one are free to enter.

Botanical Garden Building

Botanical Garden Building

Built in 1915, the main botanical building is a stunning wooden greenhouse filled with over 2,000 tropical plants. It sits in front of a lily pond reflecting pool, nestled among the park’s museums.

The building features tons of ferns, bromeliads, aroids (including a few monsters), and huge palms, some of which almost reach the ceiling. They also have a large collection of orchids and feature rotating floral displays.

Zoro Garden

Zoro Garden

If butterflies are more your thing, Zoro Garden is located next to the Fleet Science Center at the main entrance to the park. It’s a “sunken garden” with lots of flowers to attract pollinators, and small depressions carved into the stone retaining walls to serve as drinking pools for butterflies.

Zoro Garden also comes with an interesting historical twist- it was built (along with most of Balboa Park) for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, and was used as a nudist exhibit. Actors played a fictional colony of “nudists” or “naturists” and people could pay a quarter to watch them go about daily activities and a scripted Sun God ritual, all in the buff. Today, however, the only nudists are the butterflies.

Japanese Friendship Garden

Japanese Friendship Garden

The Japanese Friendship Garden was built in honor of San Diego’s first sister city- Yokohama, Japan. There is a fee to enter, but the garden is huge and includes several Japanese-style buildings, koi ponds, and rock gardens that make you feel like you’ve teleported out of southern California.

In case you’re feeling hungry after that much exploring, the garden has a small cafe at the entrance. They serve a selection of Japanese food, tea, and snacks to keep the experience going.

Rose and Desert Garden Paths

Rose and Desert Garden Paths

If you venture across the street from the main park, there are two more garden paths worth exploring. One is the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, and the other is a desert landscape of cacti and succulents. Peak blooming season for the rose garden is April and May, but the native desert flora can be enjoyed year-round.

Seasonal Delight- the Carlsbad Flower Fields

Seasonal Delight- the Carlsbad Flower Fields

One of the best times to visit San Diego is in the Spring when the nearby Carlsbad Flower Fields are in full bloom (March through May). This legendary farm has been growing massive fields of ranunculus flowers for decades, and the effect on the landscape is stunning. It’s become a part of the southern Californian culture, and a must-see for visitors.

You can make a whole day of it by taking the wagon tours or walking the paths through the fields, visiting birds in their aviary, wandering the sweet pea maze, picking blueberries in their u-pick field, checking out their orchid greenhouse and artist garden, and shopping in their attached garden center.

If you want to take home a piece of the flower fields, they sell their iconic ranunculus bulbs in the gift shop.

Indie Darling Plant Shops Paving the Way

San Diego is home to some of the most unique independent plant shops and nurseries in the United States. Local favorite Pigment has expanded to three locations throughout the county, and there are plenty of outdoor garden centers that offer rare and exciting selections of desert plants.

One of those garden centers, Sunshine Gardens in Encinitas, stands out for being a family-friendly experience. They’re a fun combination of a nursery and a petting zoo, with goats, birds, and a well-loved tortoise named Big Dude. Encinitas is a little out of the way for some visitors to San Diego, but if you make it out to Sunshine Gardens the San Diego Botanic Garden is right down the street! They’re one of the top botanical gardens in the country, and definitely worth a visit.

Jungle Fever San Diego

But even more unique than Sunshine Gardens is Jungle Fever San Diego, the work of Imperial Beach resident Stephanie Ward. Ward runs the plant shop out of her home, using her covered driveway/garage to create a lush, bohemian escape for plant shoppers.

The epitome of a COVID business success story, she opened right as the pandemic hit and takes clients by appointment only. Her location and business model are non-traditional and the shop began in one of the toughest years most businesses have ever seen, but San Diegans have been loving Jungle Fever with its disco ball, parrots, and beautiful plants.

Plant Fuel

Plant Fuel

What trip plan would be complete without food recommendations? There are several spots in San Diego with offerings for both plant lovers and those with plant-based diets.

The first, Fig Tree Cafe, offers a dreamy patio filled with plants and flanked by large trees, creating the feeling of instantly escaping from the city. The flagship location, an old cottage in Pacific Beach, is the most plant lover-friendly, though they also have a second location in Liberty Station (where you can then go plant shopping at Pigment). They offer an extensive brunch menu, and they’re the place to be on Sunday mornings.

Donna Jean

Another plant-friendly option is Donna Jean, adjacent to both Balboa Park and the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego. They offer a fully plant-based menu, and another plant-filled patio complete with their own herb garden.

Some of our favorites