Filoli, Woodside, CA

Here & There

Returning from my travels this Fall I was unaware that I was suffering from a bad case of “California Garden Delusion” fever.  It set in as I was driving from the Pacific coast home to Mesa.  All along the route I was preoccupied with my own garden imagining where I could redesign the space and insert a profusion of flowers, vegetables and berries. Upon returning home, in I wandered through my garden marking the doomed plants for removal.  Then feverishly with pick axe, shovel and compost the transformation began.  A week later and with every muscle in my body crying out in pain I was finished preparing the bed but the temperatures were still reaching 100 degrees.  My “Garden Delusion” fever broke and I began to rethink the types of plants I would be growing in my newly prepared space.

Perhaps it has happened to you, travel away and visit wonderful gardens and come home thinking that is what you must have here in the desert southwest.  I am comforted to realize this fever (not a documented medical condition but anecdotally quite well known) can strike anyone.  It struck Mr. & Mrs. William Bowers Bourn II quite hard in 1915.  Mr. Bourn was the owner of the Empire Gold Mine, productive for 106 years, and the Spring Valley Water Company supplying water to San Francisco, CA.  Having enormous wealth and unlimited access to water he recreated the Irish estate of Muckross house in California.

The garden known today as Filoli in Woodside is a grand estate with a renaissance -style garden now open to the public as a National Trust Historic site.  Filoli is a unique name that mystified Bourns’ friends and even today confuses visitors. The mystery is easily solved as the word is an acronym formed by the first two letters of Bourn’s credo, “Fight for a just cause;Love your fellow man; Live a good life” forms Filoli.

Bourn purchased the Muckross house estate in Ireland for his daughter Maud and his son-in-law, Irish Senator Vaughn Vincent.  Spending time in Ireland he became enamored of the Irish formal gardens with rhododendrons, perfectly trimmed boxwoods, sunken gardens, terraces and grass lawns.   Muckross, built in the mid 1800’s, is an example of the “fashionable pursuit of landowners who found in gardening a way to display their wealth and social status and who vied with each other to grow all manner of rarities.” (Irish Inventory of Architectural Heritage)

Where I have been known to bring seeds home for my garden from my travels, William Bowers Bourn had Irish Yew trees brought to California from Ireland.  In addition to constructing a stately mansion for his home he also included Demesnes (lands of the manor) with 654 acres surrounding the house.  Living so far from San Francisco the estate needed to produce food, firewood and fine living.  Today the freeways allow you to travel easily to visit the Filoli gardens yet in 1915 the journey was much different.

Visiting Filoli is to wander into a different time period, you may tour the formal home and then walk out onto the terrace and take a turn in the garden.  The variety of plants, trees and art objects reflects the goal of the owners to establish a house and garden to showcase their wealth and culture.

Today you may tour the  garden house, espaliered orchards, cutting gardens, a swimming pool pavilion, woodland garden, sunken garden, knot garden (both large and a miniature form) formal tree lined walkways of Yew trees and more.  There is much to explore and such variation in plants, shapes, forms and style.  The garden changes through the seasons so a visit any time of the year will be satisfying, though a spring visit could be highlighted by the Daffodil Meadow in bloom.

Throughout the 19 century increased interest in discovering new plants from around the world fueled the desire to have large impressive gardens for important parties and social events to maintain social status. Filoli certainly achieved true magnificence in this goal.  Yet even with these grand garden spaces many families of these great mansions would establish a smaller more intimate garden space close in to enjoy on a daily basis.  The small size garden is what many of us hope to enjoy in our own homes.

It is wonderful to visit such grand gardens as Filoli or Muckross House but it can make a person a bit delusional. For me it created a feverish desire to have a plant in every color, shape and texture wedged into every last nook and cranny of my own garden.   So I must recover and choose only a few more plants, unless I could find a gold mine and unlimited supply of water.

originally published in Roots & Shoots,


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