San Francisco's gardens are like golden gateways to a land of beauty

November 07, 1993|By Martha Sheridan | Martha Sheridan,Dallas Morning News

If business or pleasure brings you to San Francisco, heed this advice: Visit Eden.

When the city streets begin to lose their charm, take advantage of an opportunity to view some of the world's top gardens and see plants rarely spotted outside exotic places.

The most difficult garden-tour task is setting a leisurely pace. There are so many outstanding gardens within an hour of downtown it's tempting to try to see all of them.

In one busy weekend, I wedged in escapes to four San Francisco-area garden delights: the Strybing Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park; the Conservatory of Flowers, also in the park; Filoli, an estate 30 miles south of San Francisco; and Sunset Gardens, home of the magazine and how-to books by the same name, in Menlo Park.

The Strybing Arboretum is a worthy destination at any time, and it is a real find for business travelers who stay over on Saturday night to take advantage of lower air fares. Skip Sunday brunch at the hotel and have a cab deliver you to the arboretum's gates when they open at 10 a.m.

On a recent Sunday morning, it was easy to confuse the arboretum with Oz. I was the Dorothy of gardening as I followed a path that led from lush tropical plants of the New World Cloud Forest to towering California redwood trees.

The arboretum's 70 acres and 7,000 species of plants offer the garden walk of a lifetime -- and admission is free. Remember to wear a watch; it's easy to lose track of time, along with any desire to make that early-afternoon airport departure.

If you're an early-riser, Golden Gate Park's Conservatory of Flowers opens at 9 a.m. The conservatory, built in 1879, features orchids, carnivorous plants from Malaysia, a water garden and a variety of rare and endangered species. A collection of tuberous begonias seems otherworldly because of the unusually large flowers.

Allow 30 to 45 minutes for the conservatory; it's an easy 15-minute walk to the arboretum. The real challenge is deciding against checking out the Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium and Japanese Tea Garden along the way.

I stayed at the arboretum for two hours and walked through most of it, but it would have been easy to stay all day. Benches are plentiful; the views invite rest and contemplation.

A free weekday morning offers travelers an opportunity to heed the advice of gardening doyenne Penelope Hobhouse: Visit Filoli.

Ms. Hobhouse, who has toured gardens throughout the world, once told me that Filoli is a must-see because of its formal design and extensive plant collections.

I add a codicil to Ms. Hobhouse's advice: If you like to take nature photographs, bring lots of film.

TV buffs will be interested to learn that Filoli, a 654-acre estate with formal gardens, was used in the filming of "Dynasty." The TV series' pilot episode was shot in the house; rooms were later copied on a sound stage. All exterior shots of the "Carrington mansion" are from Filoli.

Filoli is in Woodside, 30 miles south of San Francisco. Glimpses of San Andreas Lake and the Crystal Springs reservoirs make it clear this road has earned its nickname of the World's Most Beautiful Freeway.

Filoli is surrounded by a wilderness of trees and heavy underbrush. Inside the estate's walls, formality reigns. Carefully tended lawns and plants form a series of separate areas or

"garden rooms."

The 36,000-square-foot house is a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The house tour includes only a few of the 43 rooms, including a breathtaking ballroom. Elaborate fresh floral arrangements bring the gardens indoors.

Outdoors, the Walled Garden is reminiscent of a well-tended ZTC version of "The Secret Garden." A teahouse forms part of the enclosure. Part of this garden is the multilevel Wedding Place, which contains a 15th-century Venetian fountain of red marble. In the center of the walled garden is a sundial with the inscription "Time Began in a Garden."

The Woodland Garden features a collection of rhododendrons and shade-loving plants among native oak trees. The Sunken Garden's olive trees are pruned to reveal gnarled gray limbs.

Espaliered fruit trees, a daffodil field, rose garden, knot garden, cutting garden and more make Filoli worth the trip.

One fun fact: Filoli is not named after a famous family; the letters stand for a motto. FI: "Fight for a just cause." (A subsequent owner changed that to "fidelity.") LO:"Love your fellow man." LI: "Live a good life."

Following the dictates of the latter part of the motto, I shopped at the Filoli gift shop and made the brief detour into Woodside for lunch. Snowy drifts of Parmesan cheese on the Caesar salad and homemade sausage in the calzone made lunch at the

Woodside Bakery and Cafe memorable.

Drive to Sunset

If you decide to take the rest of the day off, there's just enough time after lunch to drive to Sunset Gardens in Menlo Park for the 2:30 p.m. tour.

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