Take a Look Inside the Stunning Hidden Garden at Stanford University

arboretum agaves and yuccas plants
Caitlin Atkinson

Deep within The Arboretum at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, is the best-kept secret on campus. Surrounded by a classic California landscape—coast live oaks, imported eucalyptus, and golden grass—sits an expanse of plants that look lifted from a Dr. Seuss book. Enormous agaves and yuccas with shaggy thatch skirts catch your eye from a distance, and once you enter, the curiosities are hard to keep up with. Densely planted beds overflow with otherworldly characters flaunting spines of every color, and barrels, pads, and rigid rosettes of every proportion.

This surreal scape was one of several so-called "Arizona Gardens" created by landscape architect Rudolph Ulrich in the 1880s, a time when cacti and succulents were typically grown in small pots in the greenhouses of the wealthy, and rarely seen cultivated outdoors. Ulrich's designs, which he also created at the former Hotel Del Monte in Monterrey and the Hotel Raymond in Pasadena, among other locations, blended a formal style (quadrilateral beds and symmetrical plantings) with never-before-seen arid beauties. In Palo Alto, which was then an 8,000-acre private estate, his patrons were Jane and Leland Stanford, garden enthusiasts who spared no expense: Leland collected trees from around the world, and Jane insisted on growing a panoply of flowers year-round.

Stanford's day job was president of the Central Pacific Railroad, which came in handy, since the only way to source desert plants back then was by train. He granted Ulrich unlimited access to boxcars and labor for grueling trips to the Sonoran Desert. In a practice that would land him in hot water today, Ulrich and crew dug up the most stunning specimens, including barrel cacti, opuntia, and yucca, and shuttled them back to the coast. After the Stanfords' only son died unexpectedly of typhoid, they transformed their estate into the university in his memory in 1891.

01 of 04

Reviving the Grounds

Euphorbia rigida Yucca filifera
Caitlin Atkinson

The Great Depression hit the area hard, and while the school bounced back, the garden languished for decades until the administration decided to renovate the part of campus where it sits. The project's unlikely leader was Julie Cain, who had spent the previous 10 years managing Stanford's undergraduate library. In 1998, she gathered a team of volunteers and slowly resuscitated the grounds. "It was in rough shape," she says. More than a dozen volunteer oaks blanketed the entire ace in shade and had to be removed. A layer of leaf litter, several inches thick, covered the ground. The original serpentine rock edging that delineated the beds had sunk underground, erasing the pathways. Though Cain and her cohorts tried various mechanical excavators, they eventually found that an old-fashioned shovel worked be. "We did a hell of a lot of digging!" she recalls.

Pictured here is a rare double-trunked Yucca filifera that dates to the garden's creation looms large; beneath it lies a bed of Euphorbia rigida with lime-colored flowers.

02 of 04

Prickly Paradise

agave parryii
Caitlin Atkinson

Now restored but still under the radar, this prickly paradise is poised for another heyday, but for strikingly different reasons. Originally designed for status and showmanship, the low-water, low-maintenance plot is a beacon of sustainability. Plant procurement is dramatically different today, too. Due to its limited budget, the garden relies not on Wild West train treks but on botanical donations. (The San Francisco Cactus & Succulent Society has been indispensable in providing expertise and plenty of cuttings.)

Here, an Agave parryii displays its captivating rosette form and sharp black spines.

03 of 04

Happy Surprises

golden-flowered Aloe marlothii with Euphorbia lambii
Caitlin Atkinson

This makes planning challenging; however, the upside is the opportunity to receive an occasional giant, like a tree-size Pilocereus, dug up and lifted by crane when new owners of its home in Salinas didn't care for the spines.

In this photo, agolden-flowered Aloe marlothii shares a bed with Euphorbia lambii.

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04 of 04

Sustainable Design

Golden-barrel cacti arboretum path
Caitlin Atkinson

Another break from the past: Thirsty varieties are no longer mixed in with dry-adapted species, a signature Ulrich touch that's neither financially nor environmentally viable today. "But textural contrast is still vital," says current coordinator Christy Smith, another Stanford librarian-turned-garden-custodian. As is generational contrast: In this landscape, youngsters mingle with old treasures, including a dozen rare mature succulents that date back to Ulrich's time. These spiky elder statesmen have truly seen it all.

The golden-barrel cacti seen here—which was donated in 2003 from Lotusland, the famous Montecito garden—frame Opuntia ficus-indica, grown from cuttings of the original planting. In the background, a columnar Echinopsis terscheckii stands next to silvery swords of Yucca x schottii.

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