A Winter Road Trip, Part 3 – Filoli Center

First, a confession: formal gardens aren’t really my personal favorites.  I enjoy including tightly clipped evergreens  in a mixed border, to provide contrast to plants with looser habits, but it’s rare that I design gardens ruled by axial symmetry and carefully shaped trees and shrubs.

Having said that, I must admit I enjoyed visiting Filoli Center on my third “winter road trip” in February. I was in the area for a visit with my son and had spent some time at a small but lovely community garden in Palo Alto, the Elizabeth Gamble Garden, when I decided to head for Filoli the next day.

Filoli, which is in the care of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was created as a grand country house and garden for the Bourn family in Woodside, CA beginning in 1915. Eventually it passed into the hands of the Roth family, which gave it to the Trust in 1975.

After paying my entry fee, I didn’t even bother to visit the grand house (cretin that I am) but headed straight for the gardens, which range from natural-looking meadow areas to yew allees and trees that have been pruned into formal shapes like nothing I have ever seen.

The biggest splashes of color in the garden, in mid-February, came from hundreds of pots of forced bulbs, primarily daffodils, scattered through almost every area of the garden.

Filoli center

A cherub surrounded by Narcissus greets visitors near the entrance at Filoli Center.

Narcissus 'Erlicheer', Filoli Center

A fragrant white ‘poeticus’ daffodil was only one of many kinds on display in containers at Filoli.

Within the Walled Garden, I saw volunteers working in an area called the Chartres Garden, where low-growing annuals in yellow and blue hues surrounded hybrid tea roses that had been pruned back, awaiting spring. In the background, geometric yew cones and cylinders and meticulously pruned hedges provided an eye-catching contrast to the rounded boxwoods in the rose beds.

Filoli Center gardens

In the Chartres Garden, a wheelbarrow and tools testify to the year-round efforts of the garden’s workers and gardeners.

Camellias in bloom provided the other primary source of color in the early spring of northern California at Filoli.

Filoli Center garden

Red camellias and an elaborate iron gate draw visitors into the Walled Garden

Camellia C.M. Wilson, Filoli Center

Camellia japonica ‘C.M. Wilson’ in bloom at Filoli

Behind the pool area in the Sunken Garden, an enormous Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) dominated a large seating area, surrounded by pots of daffodils. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from its sweeping, arching branches, many of which were covered in moss. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be during the growing season.

Ulmus glabra Camperdownii, Filoli Center

Moss-covered branches of the gorgeous Camperdown elm at Filoli

Ulmus glabra Camperdownii, Filoli Center

The Camperdown elm dominates the view near the Pavilion at Filoli

The Sunken Garden area itself is dominated by a large cylindrically-pruned silver-barked tree unfamiliar to my East Coast eyes, possibly an olive tree pruned “in a formal goblet style” (see Filoli’s website for an extensive and detailed discussion of the garden’s design and influences). Setting it off is a grouping of enormous upright yews.

Filoli Center, Pool Garden

The Sunken  Garden area at Filoli, with the Garden Room in the background.

Adjacent to the sunken area, moving toward the house, again you see pots of daffodils everywhere, marking the transition to a terraced area from which there are vistas down into wilder, meadow-like areas.

Filoli Center

Daffodils and terra cotta pots soften yew hedges leading to a terraced area at Filoli

Filoli Center garden

Saucer magnolias in bloom on the terrace at Filoli.

Filoli Center garden

A view from the terrace at Filoli to a meadow area beyond.

According to information on Filoli’s website, as the planning for the gardens and house began, a wheeled tower was constructed to identify the best vantage points for the garden for capturing views of the surrounding mountains and lake. What a great idea! As I’ve noted before, views are critical in designing a garden. The Bourns understood this, even without the help of any formally-trained landscape designers or architects to help them.

And the name “Filoli” – where did it come from? From the first two letters of  “FIght – LIve – LOve.”  “To fight for a just cause; to love your fellow man; to live a good life” was a credo that Bourn believed in. Not bad for a life, or to inspire the birth of a remarkable garden.

Filoli Center is open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays from February to the end of October. For more information on its history, admission, and special programs, visit its website.

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21 Comments on “A Winter Road Trip, Part 3 – Filoli Center”

  1. gardeningasylum Says:

    Melissa, Thanks for the great photos of one of the gardens I’ve always wanted to visit. Beautiful!

    • Melissa Says:

      I would love to go back in a different season. I saw some photographs in one of the Visitor Center brochures of the garden in autumn – it looked fantastic! Hope we both get there another time. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Edith Hope Says:

    Dear Melissa, I have read over the years so much about Filoli that it has become one garden I should very much wish to see. However, your posting has been such a treat with carefully chosen images complementing your text that I feel I really begin to know this garden.

    Formal gardens, and here we may disagree in the nicest possible way, are my favourites, perhaps a reflection of a too tidy mind so, as you may imagine, Filoli receives my vote. I did, though, rather strangely, find the pots of daffodils in the main a distraction.

    • Melissa Says:

      Edith, I think Filoli gave me a new appreciation for formal gardens. At the same time it reminded me how over the long term they can be very challenging to keep up. Many of the yews – some of which have grown to enormous size – are in need of rejuvenation pruning and that is going on, especially in the Sunken Garden.

      The daffodil pots are probably utilized so heavily because they help carry the eye around the garden, to areas that are interesting but very subdued this time of year. There are also some beds with daffodils, hyacinths and tulips (the latter not yet up) in them that aren’t shown in my photos. I wonder if you would find them more appealing?

  3. Melissa, what a lovely garden, such strong structure, I loved it. I really enjoy seeing gardens before all the flowers come out, they are just as, if not more beautiful then.

    • Melissa Says:

      That is what struck me about Filoli. The structure really shows, and as I said in my reply to Edith above, visiting this garden gave me a new appreciation for formal gardens.

  4. Elizabeth Reed Says:

    Hi Melissa,
    I’m with you, that formal gardens are not usually my favorite, but these images really capture an awe inspiring beauty.
    OMG, those upright yews!!

    With gardens buried in such a formless jumble of snow and downed branched everywhere, (here in Pittsburgh)
    Its so comforting to see everything in order somewhere!

    I’m almost afraid to ask how much snow you received in this latest onslaught.

    Thanks for the post

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, our gardens here look very messy, including my own (sigh) – although the last snowstorm missed us. Filoli was really an education and I loved being able to photograph it (and would love even more to go back with my serious gear and a tripod).

  5. Michelle D Says:

    These are some of the best photographs that I have seen of Filoli, and I’ve seen a lot over the years since working there as a horticultural intern in the mid 1980’s.
    The Bourn’s, as did the Roth’s did have substantial help in the designing and layout of the gardens.
    There is probably info on their web . They also have several nice small paperback books out on the history of the design and installation over the years.
    Again, fantastic photography.

    • Melissa Says:

      Thank you so much for the kind words about my photos. Garden photography is what I enjoy most about my job, and coming from someone who has worked at Filoli this is high praise indeed.

      My comments about the design of the gardens were based on what I had read on the website – I was struck by the fact that although the owners did work with the architect for the house and a floral designer in creating the garden, there did not appear to be a landscape architect or garden designer involved. If I am wrong, I apologize. Whoever was responsible for this magnificent garden, they deserve so much credit!

  6. Although like you, I do not particularly like formal gardens, this one is just beautiful. I hope to visit it someday. The bright daffodils really brighten up the garden in the winter, don’t they?

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, I liked them (although if you look at Edith’s comment she found them distracting). I think they were about to host a “daffodil weekend” of sorts, and all the pots had labels in them identifying the various kinds of narcissus on display.

  7. noel Says:

    aloha melissa,

    thank you for taking us on this early tour of filoli, i’ve never been there during this time of the year and hopefully when i visit the bay area again in spring i’ll see more, it is nice to see the bones of the garden before spring blooms and i actually like a combination of formal to more relaxed vistas which complement the home and site and this is a perfect type of garden for this home…i really enjoyed the garden tour and your commentary….mahalo

  8. noel Says:

    btw….i agree with you that the silver tree is an old olive tree topiary from the pictures, its striking!

    • Melissa Says:

      Thanks for your comments and I envy you the chance to visit this garden in the spring! And I appreciate the confirmation on my guess as to the kind of tree the “goblet” is!

  9. Sarah Says:

    I visited Filoli several years ago in Nov. The “borrowed” views are fantastic. Did you notice the many trees with cut rings in their bark? I asked the Head of Hort at that time, can’t remember her name but she’s from DE originally, and learned that there was a vengeful gardener who was let go and proceeded to try and girdle dozens and dozens of trees. He succeeded in killing many but many also survived but still have the groove circling their trunks to show for it. Sort of chilling story but also proves how reslilient some trees can be….

    While I like Filoli, I think I like Dumbarton Oaks better…. Enjoyed your photos.

    • Melissa Says:

      What an amazing (and horrifying) story about those trees. I didn’t see any of them and am amazed to hear any survived such attacks. Thanks for sharing that chilling bit of Filoli’s history.

      I too love Dumbarton Oaks and think it makes visitors feel a bit more at home but then it isn’t as strictly formal as Filoli so maybe that’s part of why it is so appealing to me. I hope to visit again this spring since it’s been a while since I was there. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Pam/Digging Says:

    Gorgeous, gorgeous pictures. I really enjoyed your tour, Melissa. This garden is on my must-see list…someday.

    BTW, Chuck of My Back 40 (Feet) has photographed that Camperdown elm in bloom in springtime (scroll about 3/4 down): http://coldcalculation.blogspot.com/2007/04/filoli.html
    And his visit to Filoli in summer: http://back40feet.blogspot.com/2009/07/filoli.html

  11. Melissa Says:

    Thanks for the kind words about the pictures, Pam. And for the links to Chuck’s two trips to Filoli – clearly a very different experience in spring and summer. Almost overwhelming! I’d hate to have to photograph it in mid-day sun; give me an overcast day or a chance to get in before sunrise and stay a couple of hours, anytime. But that’s not usually the case with most public gardens.

  12. What a gorgeous post! The Camperdown Elm is stunning!! The moss growing on it gives a uniquely beautiful and mythical effect. Filoli goes on my wish list to visit for certain!

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, the elm was one of the highlights and a joy to photograph. Another photographer, visiting with tripod, identified it for me. The moss really made it an extra-special visual delight.

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