Just a stone’s throw from downtown San Diego is Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre public complex of over 15 museums, numerous theaters, performing art groups and the amazing 100-acre San Diego Zoo. Set aside by San Diego founders for development in 1868, “City Park” struggled through early lean years of development. But by 1910, “City Park” was renamed Balboa Park in honor of Spanish-born explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, and it was on a fast track preparing for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-16. With the ornate buildings, boulevards, sidewalks, and roads, it was reminiscent of an old Hollywood movie set as we passed museum after museum on our way to gardens.
This remarkable urban treasure compares favorably with parks like New York’s Central Park where trees and ponds and lakes dominate the landscape. Locals and tourists flock in great numbers daily to stroll the sidewalks and pathways that curve around and over these gentle California hills. I was a little disappointed not to find labels on the trees in the park as many trees were unfamiliar to me. I suspect there was a plant guide or a self-guided tour that we somehow missed. However, I did enjoy seeing lovely agave, date palms, citrus, pomegranates, and large camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora). We saw Torrey pines (Pinus torreyana) and interesting cork oaks (Quercus suber), Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), the parent of our Tidewater VA hybrid leyland cypress, and I enjoyed seeing the beloved ginkgo and mulberry trees.
One breathtaking tree and the tallest specimen in North America, a Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla), well over a hundred years old dominated an area. Once known to youngsters as “The Climbing Tree,” it is now roped off to protect the soil beneath. Several other specimens of this species are planted in the park, along with 32 other kinds of fig trees.
The Botanical Building, one of the largest lath structures in the world, built for the 1915-16 Exposition along with the beautiful “La Laguna” lily pond, is one of the most photographed scenes in the park. Yes, I did follow suit. Inside, palms, cycads, ferns, orchids and vines cool and moisturize folks against the dry desert air outside.
Pots of plants throughout the park reminded us that we were in a desert.