April 2019

by Jeremy Bugarchich, Curator of Collections

An inspiring showcase of diversity is the epitome of what is the Rainforest Garden at San Diego Botanic Garden. This garden is a wonderment of plants from regions all across the world, grown together in harmony.

Exploring the Rainforest Garden in depth, you can observe we have a balance between the two types of rainforests, tropical and temperate. We have our immense Torrey Pines, Pinus torreyana, which are not native to any rainforest region but an endangered plant native only to Santa Rosa Island and coastal northern San Diego County. These large conifers mimic the massive trees that can be found in the temperate rainforests. Along the ground and climbing around the Torrey Pines themselves you can find tropical philodendrons, staghorn ferns, Platycerium sp., and other epiphytes. These plants are native to warmer and wetter climates but we have found they can also flourish in environments outside their natural regions.

The Rainforest Garden has not always been a little jungle in the middle of Encinitas. Some of our major and iconic plants were planted before this land became a botanic garden. Ruth and Charles Larabee were some of our first botanic founders and several of the plants they planted in the 1950s are still alive in 2019. Many of the King Palms, Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, and Queen Palms, Syagrus romanzoffiana, can be found in an extension garden outside of our rainforest garden, Palm Canyon. These were introduced by the Larabees. Two of the most iconic and definitely the largest plants we have in the garden are our Bunya Bunya Trees, Araucaria bidwilli. Both were also some of the first Larabee plantings.

With these large specimens as inspiration, this garden has changed and grown dramatically over time. The Rainforest Garden design was a collaborative effort like many of the exhibits and programs at SDBG. One of our most prominent influencers and designers was Mildred L. Macpherson for whom the Mildred Macpherson Waterfall was dedicated. This colossal work of art was designed with many lush ferns like the Australian Tree Fern, Sphaeropteris cooperi syn. Cyathea cooperia, a towering fern capable of reaching up to 15m or 50 feet, and other beautiful greenery, much of which is native to Australia and New Guinea. This 60 foot tall waterfall has three viewing points from top to bottom. It neighbors a relaxing sundeck and parallel stairway, and out-flows through two additional ponds. Directly across from the base of the waterfall, you will see many large leafed plants; these are known to many as a Giant Elephant Ear or Giant Taro, specifically Alocasia macrorrhizos, previously Alocasia plumbea. This massive leafed plant crawls throughout our stream connecting the two ponds. Taro is an aroid with a popular edible corm and the leaves can grow up to six feet long and four feet wide. Our second pond is surrounded by a thicket of flowering anthuriums and brightly colored bromeliads.

Much of the flora known to be from tropical rainforests includes our beloved chocolate, Theobroma cacao, which will be housed in our forthcoming Dickinson Family Education Conservatory along with our favorite house plants like philodendrons and anthuriums and so much more. The flora within temperate rainforests includes deciduous trees and shrubs, evergreen conifers, ferns and mosses, many of which you can see in our Rainforest Garden here at San Diego Botanic Garden.

Sources for this article include:

The Tropical Rain Forest. Marietta College. Marietta, Ohio. 14 August 2013.

Data, US Climate. “Temperature – Precipitation – Sunshine – Snowfall.” Map of San Diego – California – Longitude, Altitude – Sunset, 2019.Higman, Bretwood, and Erin McKittrick. “Temperate Rainforests of the Northern Pacific Coast.” Ground Truth Trekking, 13 May 2010.

Alocasia Macrorrhizos – Plant Finder, Missouri Botanical Garden.

A special thanks to Dave Ehrlinger for historical information.