For 52 years, Rancho Soledad Nurseries has specialized in growing the unique and unbelievably beautiful. The nursery, known for its tree aloes and succulents, has taken root in a sprawling but serene 25-acres in Rancho Santa Fe, tucked into the end of Aliso Canyon Road.
“A lot of people don’t even know we’re here,” said Heather May, who runs the family-owned nursery with her son Hunter. “You can go five minutes from your home and get plants that will be a unique and fabulous addition to a lot of the beautiful homes here.”
Heather’s father, Jerry Hunter, a horticulturalist and one of the first landscape architects in California, founded Mt. Soledad Nurseries in Pacific Beach in 1954. The nursery business was truly a family business as his parents owned San Diego’s famed Rosecroft Gardens in Point Loma. In 1960, he purchased the 25 acres in Rancho Santa Fe.
When he started in Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Soledad was mostly tropical plants but Jerry steered the nursery’s evolution into succulents 20 years ago. Heather said her father always aimed to be different and had an ability to spot trends before they started. He was the first to bring in Rhapis palms (also known as lady palms) to California as well as Dracaenas, which he brought from the family’s 25- acre nursery in Hilo, Hawaii. For the last 30 years, the Hawaii nursery has been dedicated to growing the “palms of paradise.”
Rancho Soledad is a full-service nursery, creating its own plants in its tissue culture lab and 40,000-square-foot greenhouse, as well as from clippings and from cross breeding seeds, growing everything they sell on the property.
Rancho Soledad’s Jeremy Spath and Kelly Griffin have traveled all over for seeds — expeditions have taken them and other staff members as far off as South Africa and Socotra, an island territory in Yemen. A trip to Mexico helped create their newest variegation they call the “Orca” agave. The Orca is a very rare variegated ovatifolia agave, with striking stripes in its leaves — as Heather said, one or two in the yard can create a real focal point or centerpiece to design a whole garden around.
“We provide the most unusual, unique, high quality and best grown succulents in the area,” Spath said.
Spath said plants just seem to grow better at Rancho Soledad, crediting their use of “enviable” custom soil.
“And the classical music helps,” said Hunter, nodding to the classical music that is always trickling out of the property’s sound system, a tradition started by Jerry.
“We are breeding new succulents all the time here. That’s something that makes us very unique as a nursery,” said Heather, who grew up on the grounds and raised her son the same.
She is a molecular biologist and Hunter also comes from a science background, but their most valuable knowledge was passed on learning from Jerry. They carry a deep-seeded respect for the family’s patriarch, who passed away three years ago.
“We focus on what’s new, that’s what my grandfather always did,” Hunter said. “We’re not just doing petunias.”
When customers come to Rancho Soledad, the sales team drives guests around in golf carts on the expansive nursery to view the wide assortment of plants. Often customers bring their landscapers in tow as they pick and choose what they want after seeing it growing in a natural habitat.
One of Rancho Soledad’s most unique features is the “The Hill.” It had been an underutilized part of the property until 15 years ago when they had the idea to start planting on it to give people an idea of how plants will grow naturally over the years.
Hunter likens it to “cats and kittens”— it provides great examples of full-size plants and how they might work in a garden.
“We have magnificent specimens on the hill,” Heather said of the trees that have grown to towering heights and the assortment of agave in a variety of shapes and colors, such as flowering echeveria rosettes—the “afterglow” variety in purple and pink.
The hill represents plants that have been collected from every corner of the earth over the years and Hunter said some people are in awe over the species that can’t be found elsewhere.
When Heather wants to clone a plant in the tissue culture lab, she often visits The Hill, looking for ones that exhibit the best features — such as “shark skin” textures and unique imprints, scalloped or curled leaves, shades of blues and greens or how the “teeth” on the tips of the leaves light up fiery red or golden yellow in the sunlight.
In Heather’s “baby,” the cutting-edge tissue culture lab, plants start out in test tubes, grow in baby food jars and are harvested under sterile hoods. The lab was established in 1987 and purchased by Heather in 1995—now several million plants a year come out of Rancho Soledad’s lab.
“At Rancho Soledad, the lines of plants are always fresh, there are always new plants with improvements and variations,” Heather said.
Customers can also choose to browse the nursery’s retail center with plants showcased in garden vignettes along a meandering path.
“Not everything has spikes,” Hunter said, noting they have a wide collection of tropical plants that will grow “nice and lush” with proper care in the Rancho Santa Fe climate.
The nursery’s salespeople have an “impressive” amount of knowledge and many of the growers have been with Rancho Soledad for 30 years—the staff takes a lot of pride in what they are selling, Hunter said.
When two large succulents were loaded into the back of a truck last week, Hunter and Heather looked on almost wistfully, both wishing they could see how the plants would fit in at their new home.
Rancho Soledad’s beautifully-grown specimens often find homes in special places — SeaWorld, Disneyland, Legoland, the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, and numerous casinos.
Twenty of their Kentia palms will mark the new In-N-Out Burger restaurant in Oceanside and some of their plants made their Hollywood debut in a lavish home on the second season of HBO’s “True Detective.”
“I would like to see people in Rancho Santa Fe take advantage of what we have to offer,” Heather said.
“We are known for having plants that can instantly change your yard and make your garden look nice,” Hunter said.
For more information, visit ranchosoledad.com.