How would you like to tour a magnificent urban forest without looking up from your phone?
Balboa Park contains thousands of beautiful trees from around the world. Towering giants and quirky flora from Australia, South and Central America, South Africa, India, and China thrive in San Diego’s Mediterranean climate.
Join me in a look at Balboa Park’s flowering trees. You’ll learn a few fun facts about each and get some surprises along the way.
The Balboa Park trees in bloom during the month of May are:
- Cape Chestnut
- Silk Oak
- Chinese Fringe
- Australian Flame
- Brazilian Coral
- Flowering Peach
- Naked Coral
- Pink Trumpet
We have to start with the Jacaranda because it is showing off EVERYWHERE in the park and around San Diego!
- Native of Brazil.
- The bark has medicinal properties. 
- Its wood has been used to make furniture 
- Their flowers are a popular snack for some reptiles. “At the Zoo in June, the smaller iguanas were feeding avidly on jacaranda flowers as they blew from the trees into the enclosure.” 
- There is a musical group called “The Jacaranda Ensemble.”
Location(s) in Balboa Park: EVERYWHERE.
Partly Deciduous (leafless).
Aliases: Blue Trumpet Tree; Blue Jacaranda; Mimosa; Fern Tree; Black Poui; Blue Jacaranda; Blue Trumpet Tree.
- It is widely planted throughout California and one of the most widely grown ornamental trees on Earth.
- Magnolias and their close ancestors were around in the Cretaceous period (142 to 65 million years ago). 
- These flowers evolved prior to butterflies and bees and were originally pollinated by beetles and other ancient insects.
- “The chemistry of this very primitive plant has been studied extensively, particularly the alkaloids.” 
Two of the Balboa Park’s current Magnolia trees were mentioned “by name” in a 1938 written guide. To learn more, check out my exclusive post about the 80-year-old tour and its eccentric author here: https://southparksdblogger.com/2020/03/03/balboa-park-the-san-diego-tree-man-and-his-hidden-treasure/
Location(s) in Balboa Park: West of Balboa Drive from Quince to Grape Streets; Morley Field; lining eastern Palm Canyon near Organ Pavilion.
Aliases: Southern Magnolia; Bull Bay.
If this dinosaur tree stuff has your interest, check out this article from Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/revealed-the-first-flower-140-million-years-old-looked-like-a-magnolia/
- Its Latin name derived from the Greek for “beautiful tree” .
- Some African traditions teach that its seeds bring luck and skill in hunting.
- In Kenya, “[t]he tough yellow-brown wood is used for housing, tools, stools, etc. but is not commercial. The tree is often chosen as an avenue tree, for its beauty and shade. Although deciduous, its fallen leaves will enrich the soil and the pink flowers are visited by bees.” 
Location(s) in Balboa Park: Morley Field, north of Municipal pool in median.
Description: “[It] is indigenous to the coastal forest of South and East Africa. Another spring-flowering tree, it bears large rose-lilac flowers, mottled with purple, in loose terminal clusters. The grass green leaves are oval, up to six inches long and three inches wide, with numerous parallel veins. This medium-sized, semi-evergreen tree blooms during May and June. The fruit capsules which follow are nearly spherical, woody and covered with tubercles. The black and shiny seeds resemble chestnuts” .
- Native of Australia
Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute at California Polytechnic State University (UFEI) wrote the following critical review:
“A weak-branched evergreen tree. Prune to strengthen branches. Needs well-drained soil.”
Harsh critic. How’d you like to be a Sweetshade and read that review? “Weak-branched?!? I’ll give you weak-branched.”
“I’m a Sweetshade so I must be high maintenance? I can’t survive without good drainage? You saying I’m such a weakling you have to make me go to the gym? Take it down a notch, UFEI.”
Is it just me or do these pictures show that nature isn’t just passively being beautiful. It’s as though the tree is jamming the flower towards us people, saying, “Stop! Look! Smell! Life is right here!”
Location(s) in Balboa Park: Marston Point; Redwood Circle.
Description: “During May and June it is covered with very pretty small yellow blossoms that are delightfully fragrant… The foliage is a beautiful glossy green, and seems to shed the dust so that the tree has always a clean appearance even during our dry summer” .
This description, from 1923, was courtesy of former Balboa Park Superintendent John Morley. Morley held the post from 1911-1939. That period encompasses both the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the event that put San Diego into the world’s consciousness, and the 1935 California-Pacific Exposition. Horticulture was prominent for both events and an advertised feature of the first.
Translation: Morley was in charge of important “stuff” at a critical time in Balboa Park’s history. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to his years of quality service.
- Native of China.
- Wood is used to make fine cabinetry, furniture, moldings, veneers and musical instruments.
- “The genus Paulownia includes over a dozen species of trees native to Asia and is named after an eighteenth century Dutch Princess.
- When a girl is born in Japan, it is a tradition to plant a Paulownia tree for her so that when she marries, her wedding chest can be made from the wood of the tree.
- Other traditions believe that the tree brings good luck and invites the Phoenix to come near their home and fodder.
- The flowers are useful in beekeeping; most of the honey in China comes from Paulownia trees.
- Some medicinal uses are also being investigated.” 
“The group of larger trees planted at Balboa Drive and Quince Street were planted in the late 1990s and several younger trees were added in 2001” .
Location(s) in Balboa Park: Southwest corner of Quince and Balboa Drives
Aliases: Princess Tree, Royal Paulownia Tree.
Description: If you thought the Sweetshade critics were rough, check out this mixed review:
“This rather unkempt tree has been sold in countless Sunday newspaper supplements as a miracle tree that grows up to the 30 feet in 5 years. Although this is true, it’s extremely messy nature makes it a poor choice for any but the most remote and secluded areas of large estates. Many rue the day they planted this ‘miracle.’ But almost as if to apologize for its heavy litter and drooping, ugly branches, this tree puts on an April display of lavender trumpet shaped blooms that has no equal.” [Frank McDonough, Bloom, Arboretum Members’ Magazine, Issue 5, 2006: February, March, April, p.6]
Gorgeous tree but you will “rue the day” you planted one? Tough crowd.
And how snarky are the air quotes around ‘miracle’?
My New Favorite Pine Tree
As the youngest in a rough-and-tumble household, I empathize with smaller trees that have to find a way to survive despite the large, established entities (like twin older brothers) around them.
The scrawny tree in the middle, growing diagonally, is my new favorite pine. Surrounded by an enormous Sugar Gum (those small figures in the picture above are an adult and her dog) and a venerable, stout Moreton Bay Fig.
You can barely make out the pine’s trunk (center frame) in the photo above.
Sometimes you gotta grow sideways to survive. You do what you gotta do.
You can find this subtle specimen in the “Trees for Health” garden on Balboa Park’s West Mesa, on the northeast corner of the intersection of Quince Street and Balboa Drive.
I like the textured bark.
In fact, I’ll let the tree’s marker tell the story.
See the Park website for more details about the Trees for Health garden. https://www.balboapark.org/gardens/trees-for-health
- Native of Australia.
- Its pale, pinkish wood, which is reminiscent of oak, is used for furniture, cabinets, door, windows, and musical instruments.
- It is not a true oak, but a member of the Protea family, a Southern Hemisphere clan that includes the macadamia nut.
If you are building a golf course, don’t install this tree. This was specifically listed as a No-No in the article “Fifty Trees for Golf Courses.”
“Grevillea robusta, Silk Oak – has the untidy habit of dropping leaves, flowers and seed-pods in steady sequence…” .
Consider yourself warned.
Because Balboa Park’s old Silk Oaks are twelve thousand feet tall, it’s tough to get a close-up of the flowers. Below are pics from younger Silk Oaks in the Adams North section of Normal Heights.
Location(s) in Balboa Park: Northeast corner of El Prado and Sixth Avenue.
Aliases: Silver Oak; Oka Kilika; Haiku Keokeo.
Chinese Fringe Tree
- Native to China, Korea, and Japan.
- Trees may be referred to as male or female.
- They can be kept under 25 feet and are popular residential lawn trees.
- “This plant naturally loves rocky mountain slopes and contrasts well with boulders and stones. It’s used by Chinese gardeners in Shan tung as a grafting-stock for the tea-olive tree…” .
Location(s) in Balboa Park: Marston Point, exactly under the low-fly zone.
Description: “[T]he bare branches… are enveloped in four inch tassels of dainty, pure, white, fragrant florets worthy of their Greek name (snow flower). Coming up on this dream in full bloom you seem to hear church bells and see a beautiful bride beneath this bower of white” .
Australian Flame Tree
- Native of Australia.
- Gum yields a useful fiber.
- When the tree is in full bloom it looks like a flaming torch, hence the name Flame Tree .
- Dried seed pods of all varieties of Brachychiton are in great demand among curio dealers and flower arrangers. 
- These specific trees (growing in the South Carousel Lot) have a mysterious past and identity. They were purchased from Australia in the late 1960s and were a grafted tree labeled “Brachychiton x fordii”, a species no one had ever heard of. The trees compounded the confusion by growing much slow then expected .
Location(s) in Balboa Park: East of Park Boulevard in Carousel parking lot between Zoo Drive and Village Place.
Aliases: Flame Bottle Tree, Flame Tree, Illawarra Flame Tree.
- There is a Chinese custom of sweeping out bad spirits at New Year with the branch of a flowering peach tree .
- “[It] was introduced before 1939 by W.B. Clarke Nursery of San Jose, CA for ornamental use, making it one of the oldest commercial ornamental peaches released in the United States” .
- In 1962, California State University Long Beach planted over 2,000 Helen Borchers on its campus .
- They are only ornamental (i.e., they don’t produce edible fruit) but have the same growth habit as the fruiting peach .
- For home gardeners, it “is a lovely, easy-care tree to use as the focal point of a large flower bed” .
Location(s) in Balboa Park: Outside the House of Pacific Relations; Along Balboa Drive north of Laurel
Alias: Helen Borcher Flowering Peach.
Hint: You’ll find it listed in “Balboa Park in Bloom: February, 2020”. https://southparksdblogger.com/2020/02/22/balboa-park-in-bloom-february-2020/
See that little splash of yellow a little above and to the left of center in the picture below? That signals the best time of year for South Park SD residents, horticulturally speaking.
Hint #1: You’ll soon see these flowers in abundance on Fern Street through South Park San Diego’s business district.
Naked Coral Tree
- It “was voted as the official flowering tree for the City of Los Angeles in 1966.” 
- Coral trees are members of the bean family.
- These trees don’t want to be climbed! Watch out for the thorns.
Location(s) in Balboa Park: West side of Park Boulevard from Desert Garden north to Upas; along southern edge of Zoo parking lot.
Deciduous. That’s why it’s called “Naked.” Or “nekked” if you live south of the Mason-Dixie line.
Description: The tree gets its common name from the fiery red and orange cone-shaped flowering stalks which appear like fat candles at the tips of its leafless, twisted, black-thorned branches, which have a wandering tendency to create picturesque sculptures.
- The tree has religious significance to Buddhists.
- The flowers are cooked and pickled in some countries.
- The bark has been used medicinally .
Location(s) in Balboa Park: West Mesa, around Kate Session statue, west side of lawn Bowling Greens. East Mesa, east side of Zoo parking lot.
Aliases: Variegated Orchid Tree, Purple Orchid Tree, Mountain Ebony, Butterfly Tree, Purple Camel’s Foot.
One of the joys of Balboa Park is finding beautiful combinations of trees.
Jacaranda with Silk Oaks in the background.
Moreton Bay Fig with Jacaranda and Silk Oaks.
Orchid with Moreton Bay Fig, Jacaranda and Silk Oaks.
Flowering Peach with Naked Coral and Jacaranda.
Brazilian Coral Tree
- Its fancy name comes from the word for sickle, after the blooms’ shape.
- Seeds are poisonous. Not fun, exactly, but good to know.
A Special Guest. This tree is said to date back to the time of Kate Sessions, which makes it the oldest tree of this species in California. 
“There are also two trees in the same area that were planted in 1997 and are about 7 feet tall.” 
BONUS COMBO! Brazilian Coral with a Jacaranda in the background.
Location(s) in Balboa Park: Just southwest of the Marston house at the intersection of Upas and Balboa Drive.
Listed as “Evergreen to Partly Deciduous” by UFEI and “Semi-Evergreen” by Balboa Park’s former horticulturalist. I’ll call it semi-partly everdeciduous.
Alias: Parrot’s Beak.
Pink Trumpet Tree
- The tree’s wood resembles oak and gives it the Spanish name, Roble (oak) de Sabaña. The wood “is used in furniture and cabinets, tool handles, boats, yokes, interior finishing, and parquet.” 
- It has been studied in cancer research. 
- Its bark has been used therapeutically for thousands for years and is Considered to have strong immune-building properties. It is used to fight viral and fungal infections, as well as gastrointestinal upsets. It is high in antioxidants and reputed to be helpful in treating a variety of ailments including arthritis. 
- The tree was identified in a couple novels. Trouble at High Tide, a Murder She Wrote story, and Swimming in the Volcano: A Novel [30, 31].
- The Brazilians call it the “Divine Tree” .
Location(s) in Balboa Park: Desert Garden; East side of 5th between Elm and Grape Streets; Golf Course parking lot; Morley Field north of tennis courts.
Aliases: Purple Tabebuia, Roble de Sabaña, Pau D’Arco, Lapacho, Ipe Roxo.
Description: Each rose-pink bugle has a yellow throat and ornate bell.
Balboa Park’s gorgeous and diverse flora are a year-round treasure hidden in plain sight.
Fascinating and funky trees from around the world have been a constant in Balboa Park ever since 1892, when Kate Sessions leased space along Sixth Avenue for her nursery business.
The panoply from around the world provides an ever-changing display of color and form on a scale you won’t find anywhere else.
Different species are in bloom every month, so there are new trees to recognize year-round.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!
1. Ida Colhurst, Familiar Flowring (sic) Trees in India, (Digital Library of India 2015: 19074, 1937), 99-101.
2. Kathy Puplava and Paul Sirois, Trees and Gardens of Balboa Park, (San Diego, CA: Tecolote Publications, 2001), 46.
3. Chauncy Jerabek, “Plants from Around the World in the San Diego Zoo,” California Garden 53, No. 4 (August-September 1962): 16.
5. Terry Lee Davis, “Chemistry of Magnolia grandiflora L.,” (Gainesville, FL, University of Florida Dissertation, 1981), 1.
6. Puplava and Sirois, 17.
7. Ann Birnie, “Naturalist Corner: Beauty and the Beast,” The Nature Kenya Newsletter, (Dec 03/Jan 04): 1.
8. Chauncy I. Jerabek, “Trees for Color and Comment,” California Garden 51, no. 2, (Summer 1960): 15.
9. John G. Morley, Balboa Park Notes, California Garden, Vol. 14, No. 12 (June 1923), 3.
10. Puplava and Sirois, 61.
11. Puplava and Sirois, 61.
12. Chauncy I. Jerabek, “Fifty Trees for Golf Courses,” California Garden, Vol. 50, No.1 (Spring 1959), 8.
13. USDA, Plant Immigrants, (Washington, D.C.: Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, 1915), p. 922.
14. Alice Clark, For the Love of Rare Trees, California Garden, Vol. 67, No. 2, March-April 1976, p.52.
15. Chauncy I. Jerabek, “Trees for Color and Comment,” California Garden, Volume 51, No.2 (Summer, 1960), 15.
17. Puplava and Sirois, 15.
18. Edalee Harwell, “Camellias, Flowers to the Orient, Bring Pleasure to the West,” California Garden 84, no. 1, (January-February 1993): 15.
19. Chunxian Chen and William R. Okie, “Novel Peach Flower Types in a Segregating Population from ‘Helen Borchers’,” Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science 140, no.2, (March 2015): 173.
20. Archives, “Ten Things You Should Know About Edward Killingsworth,” Dwell, (July-August 2007): 144.
21. Puplava and Sirois, 69.
22. Kathy Taylor de Murillo, The Good, the Bad, and the Pretty, California Garden 97, no. 3 (May-June 2006): 24.]
23. Puplava and Sirois, 30.
24. Puplava and Sirois, 12.
25. Puplava and Sirois, 31.
26. Puplava and Sirois, 31.
27. Willow Zuchowski, Tropical plants of Costa Rica: a guide to native and exotic flora, (New York: Cornell University Press), 22.
28. Puplava and Sirois, 80.
29. Anstice Carroll, The Dictionary of Wholesome Foods (New York: Marlowe & Co., 2006 ), 146.
30. Jessica Fletcher, Trouble at High Tide (Obsidian, 2012), 111.
31. Bob Shacochis, Swimming in the volcano: a novel, (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 256.
32. Puplava and Sirois, 80.