Friday, September 3, 2021


Some of the plants we found at Filoli

Have you visited any of the grand houses and gardens created during the Gilded Age of the 19th and early 20th centuries by entrepreneurs such as Cornelius Vanderbilt or John Rockefeller?  California has its share of places to tour including Filoli, which is on the Peninsula near San Francisco.

Filoli, run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation,  sits in the middle of history and values. The Ohlone lived on the land originally. Over the tumultuous period when the Spanish arrived in California, the land became a Spanish land grant, then changed from Mexican ownership to American, while still remaining open land but leaving the Ohlone without compensation. 

After the 1906 earthquake, wealthy San Franciscans began to move south from the City. The Bourn family, whose wealth came from the Gold Rush and eventually from the company that became PG&E, acquired the property in 1914. They called the ranch Filoli and built a mansion and a huge garden on the grounds. The Roth family, who started the Matson shipping company, bought the property in the 1930s and continued to develop the garden into a showcase. The Roths donated the property to the National Trust.

The main benefit of Filoli for us now is the preservation of a large piece of open land in the middle of a bustling metropolitan area that is open to anyone. The National Trust recognizes that Filoli is not only a beautiful property to maintain, but provides an avenue for discussion about its history and the diverse groups of people who lived and worked there. Large posters hang in the information center explaining the history of the property before the Bourns and Roths. This past year Filoli also recognized the part played by three Asian Americans, chef Kee Low, landscape architect Mai Kitazawa Arbegast, and horticulturist, Toichi Domoto, in the development of Filoli. An exhibit, "Stories of Resilience," can still be accessed online with information on the importance of these three people as well as other essential workers to Filoli.

The ticket booth at the entrance to Filoli stands in front of an old olive tree grove, which separates the house from the parking lot.  Though not native to California, olive trees thrive in our Mediterranean climate; but because of olive fruit flies that damage the fruit, no oil is made from the fruit. The trees grow tall and provide a canape as visitors walk to the grounds. To encourage everyone to visit, the National Trust provides free admission to anyone with a SNAP EBT card and also offers botanical illustration and horticultural classes. Otherwise, tickets can be purchase online before a visit.

Entry stickers attached, friends and I, all of us long-time gardeners, walked the grounds to admire the carefully tended gardens and to take photos of plants and flowers. We saw several groups of young people building wattles and other supports from slim, flexible willow branches. When I asked them questions about the plants, they jumped in with valuable, well-grounded information. I was impressed with their knowledge and glad to see a younger generation who has learned to love the land and wants to tend the plants that grow in such rich soil. 

We strolled next to a row of espaliered fruit trees lining beds of sweet-scented roses and multi-colored dahlias. Some of the dahlias were dinner-plate-sized and hung heavy on their stalks. We saw squash vines and bright nasturtiums crawling between heather hedges, and lavender and other herbs filling two knot gardens with subtle shades of purple and grey. 

We could have hiked the Nature Trail to the Sally MacBride Nature Center and read the many placards that identify plants used by the Ohlone for food and medicine. We decided instead to have lunch at the Quail's Nest Cafe run by Town Kitchen, which provides employment for foster and re-entry youths. The food is locally sourced from minority and female-run businesses.

We left feeling refreshed and invigorated, knowing that Filoli has become a treasure for all of us to visit, not just for the wealthy families who once lived there. As William Bourne, someone who would applaud the changes at Filoli, said:

Fight for a just cause.
Love your fellow man.
Live a good life.

Fi - Lo - Li

One of the herb knot gardens
photo by Christy Myers


Check out Filoli's website:

"Stories of Resilience" can be found here: 

Read about the work of Town Kitchen here:

Wikipedia lists mansions from the Gilded Age. Some have been torn down, some turned into museums, hotels, or college buildings, some, like Filoli, have beautiful gardens to visit, and some are still residences:


  1. From Cheryl by email: That was LOVELY and invited us back to visit Filoli!

    Jim and I were there in 2009, loved it, ate on site, and have not been back. Keep thinking we will go when the tulips explode but have not made it yet.

    Thank you for the wonderful information and reminder of such a BEAUTIFUL place in our own backyard.
    Reply: Thank you, Cheryl, for your encouraging comments.

  2. wow, I never have heard about this place, sounds and looks heavenly. Your paintings, drawing and words are so beautiful. Happy you got to have an outing.

    1. Filoli is a hidden gem and is better because of the work they are doing to be more inclusive. thanks for your comments, CLGB

  3. From Mary by email: This makes me want to visit Filoli again. I never knew what Fi-Lo-Li stood for. I really like it!
    Thanks for sharing.
    Reply: Thanks, Mary. A trip is in the offing, I think!

  4. These are charming, Martha! I love your use of color and subject. thanks for writing about Paper and other supplies. So informative. You have a rare talent, my Friend.

    1. Thank you, Nancy, for reading my blog posts and for your kind comments. This blog has been a great way to explore all kinds of topics!

  5. Hi Martha. My connection to Filoli began with a chance sunrise-tinged Sunday morning glimpse of a young man bent over rows of green-bladed foliage along Upper Carmel Valley Rd.on a spring day. The quality of light csused me to stop for a photo, and I caught the man's attention and was hailed me over for a chat. He was Bill Welch, and he was standing over rows of Narcissus, and explained he grew them for blooms to sell at Farmer's Markets from Santa Cruz to Carmel. He told me that because they were very prolofic multipliers, he also sold excess young bulbs from his hybridizing trials in the fall. He told me he'd just sold 10K to Filoli Gardens and more to Stanford.The next spring mom & I ventured to Filoli and then down to Hanoki Japanese Gardens in Saratoga (started by the summering family of a SF business tycoon). Bill's young bulb weren't yet of blooming age, but we saw drifts and edgings planted everywhere.I need to return! Also of note for horticults: the interior atrium plantings at Stanford Hospital's ground floor near the cancer wing, generously funded and copiously planted with funds from The Stanley Bing family.

    1. Thank you, teejay, for writing about meeting Bill Welch and how that brought you to Filoli. Hinoki Gardens is next on my list of gardens to visit.


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