If I’ve learned anything in my line of work, it’s that humans go wild for wildflowers. For a few months each year, locals and visitors alike hit the Bay Area trails in search of hillsides or fields in full bloom. But you don’t have to wait for a short springtime window or travel to remote locations to enjoy our area’s bounty. There are public gardens aplenty where you can view stunning displays or immerse yourself in tranquil, fragrant settings.
Whether you’re a budding plant nerd or a lifelong flora aficionado, these local wonders will both calm and inspire you. You can learn more about diverse species and local ecosystems all in a landscape that transforms with the seasons.
Visit a garden that’s farther away for a low-key day trip, or seek one nearby for a peaceful retreat right in the city. If you’re feeling contemplative, embark on a solitary stroll. Or if you’re more of a social butterfly, gather for snacks, play and conversation! A bonus: we’ve highlighted free or affordable options that won’t break the bank.
The only dedicated natural open space in the City of Santa Clara, Ulistac Natural Area is a fantastic place to see native plant habitats. Since 2001, volunteers have replaced invasive species with California native trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers. The array of plants on display is truly astounding, from California fuschia to Dark Star ceanothus. Since the park is near a major migratory flyway, the Guadalupe River, winged creatures abound. The garden also attracts pollinators, including about a dozen bee species. Hoping to stroll? There’s almost a mile of flat, crushed granite trails to enjoy, plus access to the lengthier Guadalupe River trail.
There are about 1,600 species of wild bees in California! These free-ranging friends help pollinate over a third of California’s fruits and vegetables and contribute billions to the state’s agricultural economy. Read more.
A project of the California Native Plants Society, this two-acre garden is a destination spot for birders, walkers, photographers and local volunteers. You’ll find it in Lake Cunningham Park, a 200-acre expanse in the heart of East Side San Jose. Here, you can enjoy native wildflowers, perennials and shrubs. Some specific beauties in this volunteer-led effort include Coyote mint, Marsh goldenrod and Lemonade berry. You can also kick back in the shade of some native trees with a view of the southeastern shore of the lake. The Native Garden’s dedicated parking lot is a quarter mile from the Tully Road entrance. A small parking fee applies.
Native plants are essential because they power the rest of the food chain. They host native insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals that are unique to our region. Read more.
Located on the southwestern edge of the Stanford Arboretum, this lesser-known campus gem has a fascinating 140-year history. Designed in the Victorian Era, the garden attracted curious visitors with its whimsical displays. After WWII, it fell into disrepair, until a restoration effort that began in 1997 brought it back to life. Divided by region, the restored garden now hosts over 500 varieties of drought-resistant desert plants from around the globe! These include yucca trees, aloe, prickly pear plants and rosette-forming agaves. It’s also an ideal spot to go birding, since Stanford’s campus is home to over 125 bird species.
There are two varieties of succulents that are common in the Bay Area. One grows atop Mount Diablo, whereas the other grows on the coast. They are Canyon dudleya—aka rock lettuce—and Powdery dudleya—aka bluff lettuce—respectively. A third— Santa Clara Valley dudleya—is listed as endangered and grows only in the Coyote Valley area. Learn more.
If you want to glimpse rare and notable plants from around the world, we recommend a trip to this 135-acre gem. Their large displays include plants from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and California! Plenty of wildlife frequent these gardens, from rabbits and lizards to butterflies and bees. There are also benches and picnic tables galore, so don’t be shy about bringing some snacks or a sketchbook and settling in! There is an admission fee to visit the Arboretum, payable online or by check or cash on site. Many of the pathways and trails are stroller, wheelchair and walker accessible.
Have you ever stumbled upon a plant or animal in nature and wondered what it could be? Turns out there are apps for that! We asked our on-staff experts which apps most enhance their outdoor adventures. Read more.
This 9.6-acre neighborhood park has family friendly amenities like playgrounds, walking trails and picnic areas. It also is the site of a spectacular duo of gardens! The Edible Garden includes fruit trees, berry bushes, vegetables, herbs and flowers, the yields of which get donated to the Palo Alto Downtown Food Closet. On frequent open garden days, visitors can consult with Master Gardeners to ask questions and get advice. If native California and Mediterranean climate plants strike your fancy, check out the Water Wise Garden. There, visitors can observe how a low-water garden can lend food and shelter for beneficial insects, butterflies and birds.
Spanning an entire city block, Rosicrucian Park includes a research library, planetarium and museum. Several ornate gardens interweave between these buildings, amid statues and structures decorated in the style of ancient Egypt. The award-winning conservation landscape features native and medicinal plants, roses, papyrus trees, fountains and a Koi pond. Additionally, there’s also a labyrinth for anyone who’s practicing mindfulness. The first fully accessible labyrinth in the world, its paths are wide and navigable by wheelchair, and there are ground-level guide rails for those with limited vision.
Afterwards, you can easily double up on plant-filled park visits and make a day of it! Rosicrucian Park is half a mile—or four city blocks—from another iconic, free Bay Area garden to view what’s in bloom: San Jose’s Municipal Rose Garden.
So the next time you’re looking for a bit of serenity and color to brighten your day, go for a jaunt in a Bay Area garden! Spending time amid plants can be both restorative and soothing. Whether you’re tending to plants at a volunteer workday or simply immersing yourself in the tranquil ambiance of the landscape, you’ll feel more connected to our natural world.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more