Published April 10, 2011 | By Robert LaHoff, Halls Garden Center & Florist

I never thought I would be so excited to just see green grass. After the brutal winter we have all just endured that is exactly what helped sooth my soul as I touched down in California on a recent vacation. Looking at snow covered landscapes for nearly 7 weeks; landing in San Luis Obispo’s airport was refreshing to say the least. Gorgeous mountains, palm trees and cyclamen in front foundations were all breathtaking, but simply seeing green blades of grass reassured me that spring will eventually come.

Having San Luis Obispo as our home base my family and I ventured off in nearly equal, opposite directions. The first day of our trip took us to San Simeon and the famous Hearst Castle. The gardens were an integral part of the “Enchanted Hill”. William Randolph Hearst and his architect Julia Morgan worked together to create the garden designs. Fountains, statuary, plants and buildings, most of which is priceless, painted the picture high atop a mountain overlooking the pacific. Strolling through the gardens, familiar plants like boxwood, daphne and roses were all represented. However, what leapt out at me were the citrus trees covered with fruit, Camellias in full bloom, yellow Mimosa in flower and of course the Italian Cypress used as strong vertical accents. A successful groundcover used in mass was Ice Plant (Delosperma), a South African succulent whose rubbery foliage and brightly colored flowers has always captivated me.

Our second day took us to wine country in Paso Robles. The highlight of the day, from a horticultural standpoint, was our stop to Linne Calodo. Known for their Zinfandel and Rhone blends, this boutique winery has a plethora of Ginkgo trees surrounding their sign as well as lining their driveway all the way to the tasting facility.

The following day we ventured north and stopped first in Harmony, California. A population of less than 20 people, Harmony has some quaint shops and an impressive Eucalyptus tree towering some 60-80 feet. Still traveling north on coastal route 1 we stopped and admired the Elephant Seals. Colonizing the mainland beach of Piedras Blancas in the southern range of Big Sur, near San Simeon, these huge, blubbery beasts were as cute as they were loud. Continuing on we passed the Point Sur Naval Facility that at first glance reminded me of Mont Saint-Michel, a tidal island in Normandy, France. Pressing on we traveled through Big Sur and imbibed the intoxicating aroma of some monstrous Eucalyptus trees. Nearly all Eucalyptus are evergreen, are members of the myrtle family and have leaves covered with oil glands. Appreciative of their bark and fruit, I was particularly enamored with the White Ironbark (Eucalyptus leucoxylon) and Argyle Apple, (Eucalyptus cinerea) trees. Finally, we reached our northern most point for this trip… Monterey. Every view seemed to be punctuated with Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), a species that is endemic to the Central Coast of California. A medium-sized evergreen tree, Monterey Cypress often becomes irregular and flat-topped or windswept in appearance because of the strong winds typical of this area. Artistic examples of this cypress were evident along coastal route 1 coming into Big Sur, Carmel and eventually Monterey.

The fourth day, heading south, we traveled through Los Olivos and into Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara’s architecture had wonderful examples of Spanish Mission and Spanish Colonial revival. Mediterranean landscape designs depicting clean lines and a relaxing feel all the while being functional and beautiful. Simple stucco and adobe exteriors, elegant arches, clearly defined geometric patterns and coastal Mediterranean vegetation all left me in awe. Again, another highlight for me was the tall Eucalyptus and the wafts of aroma they provided were just too much. Dwala Aloe (Aloe chabaudii) was evident at most turns. Their bright orange-red flowers and broad, pale blue leaves edged with small teeth were stunning. Traveling down State Street in Santa Barbara, planters in front of shop stores were filled with Bird of Paradise and Mondo grass.

The last day, well really morning, was spent touring my nephew’s school, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. A university with a “learn by doing” philosophy had an enormous collection of plant material to look at. Two highlights for me include a huge wave of yellow heather embedded under towering palm trees outside the football stadium and a collection of Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia) in the middle of campus.

California is a state known for its plant diversity. This was a welcome sight amidst this treacherous winter as I was beginning to lose hope that spring would never get here.