The Trees of Filoli

Filoli, built in 1917, sits 30 miles south of San Francisco. The house was built for William Bowers Bourn II and his wife Agnes.  Bourn, heir to California’s Empire Mine gold fortune, situated the home on 654 acres and surrounded it with 16 acres of formal gardens. 


The gardens at Filoli were completed in 1922 and where designed as a series of garden rooms.  Within these “rooms” many trees were planted. The trees are all suitable to San Franciscos weather.   Now, decades later, these trees reveal the beauty of their mature form. 


The form of a tree can be divided into six basic categories. These categories are columnar, oval, vase, weeping, pyramidal and round.  Form is determined by the line, direction and arrangement of branches and twigs.  On a recent tour of Filoli I observed all six tree form categories. 


  • ·        Columnar– Trees are naturally narrow, usually with a single trunk.  Columnar trees make ideal trees for landscape areas where space in limited.  They are also ideal for screening when planted together in a line or for gardens needing a strong vertical element to act as focal point. 



·        Oval– General crown is oval and symmetry plays an important role.  Oval trees are ideal for street trees, large gardens and parks.



  • ·        Vase– Vase shaped trees have canopies with a smaller diameter on the bottom than on top.  Wide-canopied vase shaped trees provide plenty of shade.



·        Weeping– Weeping trees are characterized by soft, limp twigs.  Weeping shaped trees look best when planted alone so their effect is more pronounced.



·        Pyramidal– These trees have a dominant central trunk reaching far up into the canopy.  Little pruning is needed to create this strong tree structure.



  • ·        Round– This is the classic tree form.  Ask a child to draw a tree and a round silhouette is most likely what you will get.



When most home owners consider planting a new tree they often only consider the height.  Equally important is the form of the tree.  One type of tree form may be ideal for a certain location while another tree form may be out of place even though both trees will reach the same height. For example, a columnar tree will grow in less space than a vase shaped tree.  While space for a tree with a large form may not be an issue at Filoli, it certainly is with most home owners.  


If you are looking for ideas to freshen up your own garden, take time to visit the classic gardens of Filoli.  The gardens of Filoli represent the “Golden Age of California Gardens” and offer any gardener or designer much to study.  By the way, the name Filoli comes from combining elements of Bourns’ life’s credo:  “FIGHT for a just cause; LOVE your fellow man; LIVE a good life.”