Located 30 miles north of San Diego, the garden was the former estate of Ruth Baird Larabee, who donated her home and gardens to San Diego County in 1957 for public use. What was at first known as the Quail Botanical Garden opened in 1970 on 22 acres, with fifteen acres subsequently added through the transfer, donation, and leasing of adjacent properties. In the 1980s county officials transferred ownership to the Quail Botanical Foundation, which continues to operate the garden today.
This asymmetrical, 37-acre property exhibits more than 4,000 plant species arranged within 29 geographically and climate-themed gardens from around the world, including those representing the flora of South Africa, Mexico, and Australia, along with an undersea succulent garden, a tropical forest, a bamboo garden, and regional desert and native plant areas. The gardens were developed by skilled horticulturists, including P.J. Miller and Gil Voss. Named after a founding member, the Mildred Macpherson Waterfall was constructed in 1979 in the tropical rainforest area. In 1986 landscape architect Paul Mahalik, who had earlier worked on an extension of the Palm Canyon, introduced a stream that originates in the waterfall pond and runs through the tropical forest. A four-mile-long network of winding asphalt and earthen trails, shaded by a canopy of both native and tropical trees, radiates out from a central parking lot. Directly north from this point of arrival, a walled garden adjoins the Larabee House and Library, a century-old California ranch home. A natural reserve of chaparral and coastal plants is crossed by an elevated boardwalk that terminates at an observation deck overlooking the entire garden. Designed by Deneen Powell Atelier, the Hamilton Children’s Garden, with a 25-foot-high artificial tree and tree house, was built in 2009. The steel-and-glass Dickinson Family Education Conservatory was added to the children’s garden in 2018.