Real Estate

The secret garden

Volunteers bring life back to Stanford's neglected Arizona cactus plantation

Tucked away from the rest of Stanford University's main tourist attractions, an eccentric and whimsical garden sits on the far northern tip of campus. Surrounded by a grove of oak and eucalyptus trees, its densely tangled prickly pear plants and towering yucca trees stand out starkly to passersby, leaving many curious about how a plot of land straight out of the Sonoran desert came to exist just yards away from the Stanford Mausoleum.

Unbeknownst to many students and visitors, the Arizona Cactus Garden is one of Stanford's oldest living attractions, with roots reaching back to the late 1800s. Boasting over 17,000 square feet of green space, the quadrilaterally symmetrical and American West-inspired garden was designed by acclaimed landscape gardener Rudolph Ulrich between 1881 and 1883. The Arizona Garden was an unusual sight even by the standards of its time in the Gilded Age, a period that was marked by ostentatious wealth. In its heyday, it included thousands of varieties of cacti and succulents that rarely, if ever, grew naturally in the Bay Area.

"Stanford was always interested in horticulture and agriculture, but nobody had ever seen anything like this," said Julie Cain, a historian at Stanford's Heritage Services who led the effort to restore the Arizona Garden in the late 1990s. "This was the accepted norm at the time, this is what you (would) do -- you got it, you flaunt it."

Even when the Stanford family redirected their efforts to building a university in honor of their late son, the Arizona Cactus Garden became a vital part of campus life, serving as a classroom for many art and botany classes and even as a "makeout spot" for students who wanted a secluded place to kiss, Cain explained. After World War II, however, it fell into a state of disrepair as the campus expanded, leaving the garden neglected for over half a century.

"Before World War II, it was very much featured, people referred to it in the Stanford Daily and it was a part of campus life," Cain said. "After the war, campus life changed and the growth and focus of campus was so much in the opposite direction that people didn't need to come here."

The garden was mostly forgotten until 1997, when by chance an opportunity to lead restoration efforts fell into Cain's lap as her full-time job on campus as a librarian was ending. As a historian, Cain was intrigued by the idea of learning about and restoring the garden, even though she had no formal background in landscaping or horticulture, she explained.

Keeping the garden's former reputation as a Victorian-inspired status garden in mind, Christy Smith, the garden's current coordinator, began researching and planning for a restoration that would bring back the sense of awe and curiosity the garden once invoked.

"This garden was meant to be a showpiece," Smith said. "It wasn't a botanical garden, or planted in a way where all the plant families were put together. It wasn't about walking through and learning about the plants, it was about truly experiencing the garden."

With support from the San Francisco Succulent Society and a host of dedicated volunteers, Cain and Smith have not only been able to transform the garden back to its original state, but have expanded it to include a number of rare and unusual flora such as a floss-silk tree, spiral aloe and century plants. Since a majority of the plants have been donated and they don't always know what they'll get, Smith and Cain have maintained cohesion through an "A-B-C-D" method of planting, where the "A" plant is the largest specimen and the "D" plant is ground covering. "This gives continuity without having to have the same plants in every bed," Cain said.

In many ways, the Arizona Cactus Garden's restoration is still a work in progress. In the 18 years since Cain and Smith first started on the project, over 5,000 varieties of cactus, succulents, ice plants and other rare and unusual specimens now grow abundantly in the 58 stone-lined garden beds, including a dozen or so original species from the 1880s. For both Smith and Cain, maintaining the legacy and elegance of the garden for years to come is the ultimate goal.

"I hope that the garden will be here 100 years after we're gone, and that nobody says we need a parking lot more than we need this garden," Cain said, as Smith added, "That would be both of our worst nightmares."

An appreciation for gardening and a passion for history is what initially attracted Cain and Smith to the project and continues to be the driving force behind their efforts to keep it maintained and at the forefront of Stanford's history. But Cain and Smith agreed that their efforts wouldn't have been possible without the help of so many dedicated volunteers, and in many ways, without each other.

"For both of us, this has been a labor of love," Cain said, nodding towards Smith. "We're both so passionate about the garden."

Avi Salem is a former Palo Alto Weekly editorial intern.

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3 people like this
Posted by Gertrude
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 4, 2016 at 11:16 am

I remember riding my bike through the cactus garden when it was in a state of disrepair back in the early 70's and wondering how all the weird plants got there, not knowing its history. I had forgotten about it until almost 30 years later when I stumbled upon it once again, now beautifully restored, when visiting Stanford's tomb. I recognized some of the weird plants and realized they were the same plants I had ridden my bike past as a 12 year old, not knowing it was a victorian cactus garden. It is now one of my favorite local places to visit, especially when the cactus are blooming.

Thank you to all who restored and maintain the cactus garden.

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