Visiting Fabulous Huntington Garden

Desert Garden
Part of the Desert Garden. Notice the mass plantings of golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii).

I’m writing this from the Los Angeles Airport and will soon be boarding my plane home. However yesterday, with two garden writer colleagues, Linda Askey and Ken Brown, I visited probably the best known garden in all of California, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens or simply Huntington Garden. In fact, in California you don’t even need the final word: say “The Huntington” and everyone knows what you mean!

Aloe 'Vulcan's Fire'
Aloe ‘Vulcan’s Fire’

The Garden is located in San Marino, close to Pasadena where we had been staying: both are Los Angeles suburbs. It is a vast garden of 120 acres (45 hectares), known especially for its Desert Garden: a collection of cacti and succulents. In fact, it is reputed to be the largest such collection in the world! This is not just a rows of thick-stemmed plants with labels: this is a strikingly landscaped garden, with each plant carefully placed for utmost effect. Imagine not just one choice specimen of the giant golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) like you’d see in most botanic gardens, but mass plantings of them. And towering tree yuccas and beaucarneas! And I would suspect that winter is the best time to visit the Desert Garden: the fabulous collection of aloes was in full, fiery bloom: reds, oranges, yellows, even a few pinks. Outstanding!

Pont des trois lunes
The moon bridge (actually, a 3 moon bridge!), in the Chinese Garden.

But there is more to the Huntington than a vast desert garden. It includes a beautiful Chinese garden, the “Garden of Flowing Fragrance”, one of the largest such gardens outside China.This is a fairly recent addition to the Huntington, built by architects and artisans from Suzhou, the renowned garden city of southern China. The walled garden contains beautiful Chinese pavilions, flowing fountains, ponds and lakes, incredible limestone rocks from China’s Lake Tai, bamboos, flowering Prunus, and so much more. I was especially struck by the bridge crossing the main lake with its three perfectly circular openings. This type of bridge is called a moon bridge, where a upper semi-circular bridge is perfectly reflected in the lake below, forming a full circle, like a moon. But I’ve never seen a triple one before.

Jardin japonais
Japanese Garden

The Japanese garden is much older, dating back more than a century. It is one of the original features of what was then the Huntington family’s private garden. Dominated by a ravine where a stream flows and gurgles and a large Japanese house, it also contains a zen garden, a vast and fascinating bonsai collection, various Japanese pavilions, many unusual weeping trees and shrubs, ponds and bridges, oriental topiaries and much more. I was fascinated by the wide selection of Japanese apricots (Prunus mume) and also the camellia collection, both in full bloom at the end of January.

Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) in fruit.

Of course, you have to visit the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science (just call it “the Conservatory). This vast 16,000 square-foot (1,500 sq. m.) greenhouse includes 3 different habitats: a lowland tropical rain forest, a cloud forest, and a carnivorous plant bog, plus an absolutely fascinating a plant lab: there were all sorts of experiments you could do, like looking a the stomata of a living leaf under a microscope, or the anthers of a flower. The famous titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), the plant that bears the largest inflorescence in the world, was in fruit. I’m seen the treelike leaf of this extraordinary giant plant many times in other botanical gardens around the world, and once even its famously stinky, short-lived inflorescence, but it rarely produces fruit in a garden setting due to the absence of the appropriate pollinating insects. Well, the Conservatory staff obviously hand-pollinated it, for it there was in full fruit: like a giant red corn cob. Striking! If I understand correctly this is only the second time this fruit has been seen in a public garden anywhere in the world! I really lucked out!

Maison en topiaire
Topiary playhouse

The Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden is so much more than just swing sets and sandboxes! It is certainly one of the best interactive children’s gardens I have ever seen. Children get to splash in water, make music with pebbles, dance under rainbows, disappear into a swirl of fog, and hold magnetic forces in their hands. As for plants, there are topiary animals, bizarre plants, and even a playhouse created from living plants.

Forêt de bambous
Bamboo forest

I’m running out of time, so will only mention the fascinating  forest of giant bamboo, the collection of Australian plants, the herb garden, the rose garden, the subtropical garden and the Shakespeare garden. And so much more I didn’t have time to visit!

And it would be very unfair of me not to mention Huntington’s famous museums of art, ancient books and antique furniture, considered among the best in the United States. The collections include such iconic paintings as Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. But I have to make a confession here: I had no time to even consider entering the museums. You see, the complex opens at 10:30 am and closes at 4:30 pm on weekends (only 12:30 to 4:30 pm on weekdays) and yet, it would take at least 8 hours just to do a reasonable tour of the gardens alone. So I tried to see as much of the gardens as possible in the short time allowed me, telling myself I would leave the museums for another time. In actual fact, although I hope I would to return to the Huntington often, I doubt if  I’ll every find time for the museums! The gardens are just too fabulous!

This is a 5-star garden: truly world class. It is worth traveling from any distance to see. I hope you’ll get the opportunity to visit the Huntington at least once in your life, it is definitely worth it!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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