A Capitol idea – Tour Sacramento’s downtown arboretum for its beautiful garden | TheUnion.com

A Capitol idea – Tour Sacramento’s downtown arboretum for its beautiful garden

Leading a group of about a dozen persons on a tour of the Capitol Park arboretum in downtown Sacramento, a docent pointed to one particularly large oak, Quercus suber, noting: There’s the tree that supplies the corks for our wine bottles. It’s a Southern European cork oak.!”

She was leading the visitors on to other plants when she noticed that one man had dropped out of the group and was staring intently into the branches of the tree: “I don’t see any corks!” he huffed.

Stifling her laughter, the guide explained that corks don’t grow on the branches. They’re created from the tree’s extra-thick bark. The others in the group weren’t as kind in holding back laughs.

Because of the beauty of Capitol Park, which is bounded by N, L and Ninth and 15th streets in downtown Sacramento and provides a perfect setting for the State Capitol building, most people refer to the 40-acre site as a park, rather than an arboretum. But it is an arboretum, and a fascinating one, with more than 450 species of trees, shrubs and flowers.

The imposing row of California fan palms, Washingtonia filifera, are outstanding specimens of the state’s only native palm. The handsome Deodar cedars, Cedrus deodora, on the west side of the Capitol, date back to the earliest plantings in 1870-71. On the east side of the Capitol, rows of citrus provide a heavenly perfume when they come into bloom.

Other outstanding specimens come from all parts of the world, including the Mexican Montezuma cypress, Taxodium mucronatum, the Chilean wine palm, Jubea chilensis, the Japanese flowering crab apple, Malus floribunda and the graceful Jelecote pines, Pinus patula, from Mexico.

And they’ve grown to such stature because of being planted in freely draining silt dredged from the Sacramento River.

One towering tree, a Australian bunya-bunya, Araucaria bidwilli , produces large seed pods that weigh about 10 pounds apiece which are carefully removed by park arborists before they reach maturity and fall, imperiling people below. The tallest specimen is more than 100 feet tall and is planted in the Southwest corner of the park.

These facts and many more can be found in a free brochure, The Capitol Park Tree Tour, which may be picked up in the Capitol Tour office, room B-27 on the ground floor. This brochure lists over 300 trees on three separate walks as well as significant monuments and gardens in the park.

It’s easy to take a self-guided tour with map in hand, and guided tours are available on a regular basis at 10:30 a.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day. You may also book tours by calling (916) 324-2088.

While working as a reporter and garden writer for The Sacramento Bee I had many opportunities to visit the park. Once, during the renovation of the Capitol building that was completed in 1982, I wore a hard had and was guided through the basement area looking up to blue sky! The exterior walls of the structure were braced to prevent them falling, and the famed golden dome was supported in place by a sort of giant erector set to make it appear as if the hollowed-out building were still intact.

Another time I visited the cactus garden, near the intersection of N and 15th streets, intent upon getting photographs of the cactus plants in bloom. I was one of the few “combination men” on the Bee staff, permitted to carry a camera on assignment, and had recently been given a lecture on the wisdom of using a camera tripod to take floral pictures.

This appeared to be a perfect opportunity, and I even went one step further in assuring the camera would be held rock-solid by using a cable release mechanism instead of pressing down the shutter button. Arranging the camera to focus on one particularly spectacular tubular red blossom, backlit by sunshine, I was looking through the viewfinder when a bright green hummingbird flew up and stuck its beak into the center of the flower!

Stunned at my extreme good fortune, thinking, “Wait’ll they see THIS shot!” I triumphantly pressed the cable release. Nothing happened. I pressed again, harder. Still nothing!

Desperately unscrewing the cable release to revert to the old-fashioned shutter trigger, I must have made some noise that frightened the bird, or it had drunken its fill of nectar. It buzzed over my shoulder and out of sight. That was the last time I ever attempted using a cable release.

In addition to attractive flowerbeds, the camellia grove with its winter-blooming plants, and the rose garden, the park has numerous monuments, including those honoring firefighters, Veterans of Foreign Wars and one for those Californians lost in the Vietnam War.

It’s a site that all Californians should be proud of, and visit more often.


Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, a trained master gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.

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