Down the Rabbit Hole at Aloes in Wonderland

Santa Barbara Nursery Is a Playground of Rare and Fantastical Plants

Down the Rabbit Hole
at Aloes in Wonderland

Santa Barbara Nursery Is a Playground
of Rare and Fantastical Plants

By Tyler Hayden | Photos by Ingrid Bostrom
May 25, 2023

“Adaptations are what make for interesting plants,” said Aloes in Wonderland operator Jeff Chemnick of the nursery’s stout and spiky specimens. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Read more of our Home & Garden 2023 stories here.

All the whimsy of Wonderland is here, but instead of giant mushrooms, there are rows of 12-foot aloes. Tweedledee and Tweedledum are a pair of big-bellied bottle trees squatting in the sun. Blooming cacti replace singing flowers, rabbits are much less concerned about the hour, and while no hatter is to be found, there is a mad genius of horticulture to show you around.

Aloes in Wonderland | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

This is Aloes in Wonderland, a specialty nursery with a twist. Most of the merchandise — approximately 10,000 plants representing 500 species of succulents, palms, agaves, and more — is still rooted in the earth. Everything is therefore bigger and fuller than what you could ever hope to find in a pot. Customers schedule a tour, pick what they like, then dig out their purchases or arrange for a transplant. Prices range from $25 to $25,000. 

The Sycamore Canyon property is overseen by Jeff Chemnick, who also happens to live there. He arrived in 1988 from San Diego with a botany degree and ambitions of creating something beyond a traditional nursery. “I always wanted to be the guy who has specimens,” he explained. “I’m a sucker for the unusual.” Chemnick built out his for-sale garden with an impressive collection of rare and exotic plants, and things went well for a while. That is, until the 2008 Tea Fire roared through. 

Chemnick lost his home. The neighbor’s burned down too. Some plants were salvageable; many were not. But instead of packing it in, Chemnick decided to double down on his newly blank slate. He rebuilt his house and replanted his yard (primarily from seed), bought the burned-out property next door, and expanded the nursery into the 4.5 acre cornucopia it is today. 

All that would be remarkable enough, but Aloes in Wonderland holds some especially unusual treasures. It’s home to hundreds and hundreds of cycads, an ancient order of flora with palm-like fronds and distinctive cones that herbivorous dinosaurs made meals out of. They’re Chemnick’s specialty, and people come from as far as Maine and Japan to select from his world-class inventory. 

Aloes in Wonderland | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Cycads have fascinated him since he was a teenager, Chemnick said. He’s now an authority specifically on Mexican varieties and leads botanical tours through the country. He’s also a member of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), which tracks the status of endangered cycads across the planet. Closer to home, Chemnick works as a research associate for Lotusland, where he trains docents, serves on committees, and is the chair of its annual Exceptional Plants Auction and Sale. He’s been writing a book on cycads for years, but he keeps discovering new species and so can’t finish it.

As Chemnick walked along one of the many paths that cross the sloped and sunny property, he mused on his attraction to the kinds of plants that surrounded him. He loves their architecture, he said — the radial symmetry of cacti, for example, or the Fibonacci spiral of a cycad cone. He also appreciates their resilience, pointing to the fleshy leaves of succulents that retain water and the spines of a palm that wards off predators. 

“Adaptations are what make for interesting plants,” Chemnick said. And if that means more rotund proportions to store moisture and ward off fire, all the better. He even named one of his favorite barrel-shaped trees “Mickey Rooney.” “Short and fat is a beautiful thing,” he said.

To schedule a tour, visit


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.