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Everything you need to know to tour the Bay’s Filoli garden estate

by Timber Press on July 28, 2017

in Gardening

Spring plantings enliven the area around the reflecting pool at Filoli.

William Bowers Bourn had a credo: “To fight for a just cause; to love your fellow man; to live a good life.” Take the first two letters of “fight,” “love,” and “live” and what do you have? Filoli, the extraordinary garden estate Bourn built about thirty miles south of San Francisco. With its Gilded Age house and Golden Age garden, Filoli is a glamorous memory of lives lived on a grand scale in a setting of incomparable beauty. It has no peer in Northern California and is now a National Historic Landmark.

86 Canada Road, Woodside, CA 94062, filoli.org
Visit mid-April and May for maximum blooms

  • (650) 364-8300
  • Open early Feb–Oct Tues–Sat 10am–3:30pm, Sun 11am–3:30pm; closed Nov–early Feb and major holidays
  • Admission fee
  • Some lawn areas and narrow pathways are unsuitable for wheelchairs or strollers
  • No dogs

Filoli was built on the gold that came from gold—namely, the Empire Gold Mine in Grass Valley. The owner of the mine, William Bowers Bourn II, bought 654 acres in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains at the south end of Crystal Springs Lake. The landscape supposedly reminded him of Muckross, the Irish estate he’d purchased for his daughter Maud in 1910. Today, all the property surrounding Filoli is a protected watershed. What that means is that Filoli still enjoys the same valley and mountain views that it had over a century ago, a rarity in overdeveloped California.

The Bourns were San Franciscans, but after the 1906 earthquake, they, like many other wealthy families, built country estates on the Peninsula. Stylistically, everything that was considered grand, elegant, and “classy” back then originated on the East Coast or in Europe. That’s why the palatial house at Filoli, completed in 1917, was built of bricks instead of wood and resembles a plantation in Virginia or a grand manor in England or Ireland.

It’s a kind of gilded, golden dream so uniquely of its time and place that it could never be replicated today.

The house has been beautifully preserved and has the kind of features we would expect in a mansion of that era: an enormous butler’s pantry, walk-in safes converted into Western-themed bars, a wood-paneled library, and a dining room with a table that seats twenty. The dazzling floral arrangements seen throughout the house come from Filoli’s own Cutting Garden.

The Bourns asked Bruce Porter, a San Francisco artist and stained-glass maker, to help design the sixteen acres of formal gardens. Porter’s design, with lawns, terraces, parterres, and compartmented garden rooms framed by hedges, Irish yews, and brick walls, takes its cue from Renaissance-era European gardens. He was aided by Isabella Worn, a self-taught and highly regarded horticulturist from one of San Francisco’s oldest families.

It’s a thirsty garden, full of tender, water-loving, non-drought-resistant plants, but it was created at a time (between 1917 and 1921) when water was never an issue—especially since Bourn owned the Crystal Springs Reservoir at the end of the valley. The California drought and water restrictions have forced Filoli to let some lawns go brown and reduce watering, but if you visit from February through April, after the winter rains, you’ll find the landscape lush and green.

The gardens achieved national renown when the estate was sold in 1937 to Mr. and Mrs. William Roth, owners of the Matson Navigation Company (their passenger steamships made the run from San Francisco to Hawaii). Mrs. Roth retained Isabella Worn as her chief gardener and together they brought the maturing gardens to a new level of perfection. Attention to detail is crucial in this kind of collector’s garden and Filoli’s eight full-time gardeners are up to the task.

There are many ways to explore the gardens at Filoli and there are many gardens to explore. As you approach the visitor center, you’ll pass the olive orchard with its old Mission and Manzanillo olive trees. The entry courtyard of the house is embellished with a collection of mature magnolias, Japanese maples, Atlas cedars, and a grove of centuries-old coast live oaks, the native tree of the region. More exotic trees, including a sculpted New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium ‘Nichollsii Nanum’), a Chilean myrtle (Luma apiculata), and Hinoki cypresses (Chamaecyparis obtusa), are found on or near the upper terraces behind the house. In April, massive white and purple wisterias burst into fragrant flower along the terraces’ carved stone balustrade and elsewhere in the garden.

Inviting portals lead visitors into the magnificent Filoli gardens.

Steps lead down into the romantic Sunken Garden, with its rectangular reflecting pool and side beds filled with the colorful seasonal displays Filoli is known for: tulips, daffodils, and other bulbs in the spring, tender annuals like petunias, zinnias, phlox, and impatiens in the summer. A beautiful brick wall with an intricately carved wooden gate (once the front door of the Bourn house in San Francisco) separates the Sunken Garden from Filoli’s garden shop.

West of the Sunken Garden, a lush green lawn flanked by pollarded London plane trees leads to the brilliantly blue swimming pool, installed by the Roths in the 1950s, and the pool pavilion, with landscaping by Isabella Worn. Have a look at the 1920s-era changing rooms to one side of the pool (used by tennis players before the pool was built). In front of the building there are two giant Camperdown elms (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’), a non-reproducing cultivar created by grafting a Camperdown elm onto a Scotch elm.

Pass through the lovely garden house or one of three arched entrances to reach the Walled Garden. The garden house is an airy architectural confection that epitomizes the Belle Époque style of the early twentieth century. Gaston Rognier cast the six faces on the building’s cornices and the two cast fruit baskets beside the stairway that leads down to a sundial with the inscription “Time began in a garden.”

The Chartres Garden on the east side of the Walled Garden is an intricate design of boxwood parterres planted with blue and red annuals that are meant to resemble the luminous stainedglass windows at Chartres Cathedral. Within the Walled Garden you’ll also find several rare specimens of pink-flowering mountain camellia (Camellia reticulata), a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) from southeast China, and a black beech (Fuscospora solandri) from New Zealand. A collection of blue and white hydrangeas is enclosed within a latticework fence.

This tranquil pool is an eye-catching feature in the long axis that runs the length of the gardens at Filoli.

More color-drenched gardens occupy the property south of the Walled Garden. First comes the Rose Garden, with over 500 roses, then the Elizabethan-style Knot Garden, created with germanders and lavender. Two raised display boxes are planted with herbs to re-create in miniature the designs of the Knot Garden. Running along the east side of these two gardens is a border of California perennials and a showy collection of tree peonies. In the center of this garden, the monumental yew allée (planted with about 200 dark Irish yews) marches across the lawn to the High Place at the southernmost end of the garden. From there, you can look down and see the layout of the entire garden, all its original views intact and framed within the green of the surrounding countryside. It’s quite a sight.

West of the allée there’s a wonderful fruit orchard, with over 1,200 fruit trees planted in 1918 to provide the Bourns with a year-round selection of dessert fruits. There’s so much fruit grown here that Filoli holds a popular Autumn Festival at the end of September. Visitors can taste heritage apple varieties and other fruits grown and harvested at Filoli. The daffodil meadow in front of the orchard is at its peak in early March.

Just to the north, an entry gate in a brick wall opens into the secretive Woodland Garden. Here, in the deep shade, you’ll find a host of camellias, Japanese maples, and other shade-loving plants.

As if all that weren’t enough, you can also go hiking on five miles of nature trails among native redwoods and oaks. Almost everyone who visits Filoli comes away rapturous and determined to return. It’s a kind of gilded, golden dream so uniquely of its time and place that it could never be replicated today.


Author THUMBNAILDonald Olson is a travel writer with a longtime interest in gardens and gardening. His travel stories have appeared in the New York Times and National Geographic. He lives, writes, and gardens in New York and Oregon.

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