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Swaths of colorful flowers as far as the eye can see. A magical fairy garden. A maze of sweet pea flowers. A playground nestled among a village of mushroom shaped buildings. Santa Claus.
No, you aren’t in Oz or some other enchanted fairy land created by Disney/Pixar. You’re at the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, better known as Carlsbad Flower Fields, a temporary — and enchanting — attraction outside of San Diego. If you are in Southern California between late March and mid-May, and you are looking for San Diego activities that are out of the ordinary, then this working farm should not be missed.
The Carlsbad Flower Fields were never intended to be a tourist attraction. In fact, they were never intended to be open to the public at all.
What is now known as the Carlsbad Flower Fields was originally a small ranch dedicated to growing vegetables. Owned by the Frazee family, the ranch didn’t grow flowers at all until 1920 when their neighbor, Luther Gage, began planting ranunculus. This was new to the region. By 1933, the Frazee family was adept at seeding and cultivating the ranunculus flowers, which were not as popular as they are today. At the time, most ranunculus were either red or yellow but whenever a new specimen appeared, the Frazees carefully reserved the seed and cultivated it. By the 1950s, the Frazee family had developed more than a dozen new varieties of ranunculus — and were the only commercial grower of the flowers in the U.S.
As the flower fields extended toward Highway 101 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the colorful swaths became an unofficial tourist attraction to travelers making their way along the coast. Thousands of people stopped along the highway every year, snapping photographs — and picking bouquets. Edwin Frazee, the son of the original owner, sensed an opportunity. In 1993, he opened the Carlsbad Flower Fields, giving people the chance to see the flowers up close while learning about the ranch’s history and the growing operation.
Because the Flower Fields is not a botanical garden but a working farm, the flowers that bloom for two months every spring are intended to produce bulbs. The flowers bloom, produce seed for next year’s crop and are harvested for their bulbs. These are then sold to gardeners and garden centers around the world.
That being said, the Flower Fields are still worth a springtime visit. Visitors can explore the meandering paths through the fields on foot, stopping to smell ranunculus whenever they wish or hop on a wagon pulled by an antique tractor for a guided tour providing insight into the fields’ history, and how the flowers are grown and maintained.
In addition to the ranunculus fields, the Carlsbad Flower Fields also have a rose garden, a maze cut from sweet pea vines (which is more challenging than it looks) and greenhouses dedicated to orchids and poinsettias. Kids can grab a passport at the entrance and earn stamps at various locations around the fields. Upon completion, they get a discount at the Carlsbad Mining Company, an on-site diversion where kids search for gems by sifting through sand and water.
Kids can burn off energy exploring the Santa’s Village Playground, an enclosed village of whimsical mushroom-shaped playhouses surrounding a large playground. For those who leave the little ones at home, the large garden center is a gardener’s shopping heaven, offering both seeds and bulbs cultivated on site as well as other plants and cut flowers.
The flowers in Carlsbad start to bloom around mid-March. For peak color, visit in mid-April. The fields close to the public in mid-May, when most of the blooms have faded or died. Weekdays tend to be less crowded than weekends. There is an admission charge; tickets can be purchased online or at the fields and season passes are available.
What was once a drive-by curiosity for travelers along the California coast has become on the most popular rites of spring for local San Diegans and visitors. Even those who do not garden can appreciate the fields’ beauty and color — and the history of a San Diego institution — without traveling over the rainbow to Oz.
Image from Flickr’s Creative Commons
About the Author: California native Olivia DiPauli first visited the Carlsbad Flower Fields as a high school student, and now brings her own children to view the flowers each year. An avid gardener, she blogs about her garden adventures for a local site.