Horticulture appears third in the name, but don’t let it fool you—The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has some first class flora. The Huntington’s founder, business magnate Henry E. Huntington, possessed a penchant for plants as well as books and art. His resplendent 120-acre estate features an array of specimens from around the globe that thrive in the mild Southern California climate.
Despite being a delight for the plant lover, the institution’s plant collections are sometimes overshadowed by the more well-known research library and museum. Kitty Connolly, The Huntington’s Associate Director of Education, expressed the need to advocate for the horticultural collections within the larger institution. One accomplishment in this arena was the construction of The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science, which houses “Plants Are Up to Something,” a family-friendly exhibit designed to encourage discovery of plant processes through scientific inquiry. “Real plants, real tools, real science” was the conceptual motto for exhibition development, which combines interactive science stations with the beauty of a lush conservatory. Winning the 2007 American Association of Museums Excellence in Exhibition Competition certainly helped throw the spotlight on The Huntington’s plant wealth.
After taking a brief tour of the herbarium and tissue culture lab with Plant Conservation Specialist Sean Lahmeyer, we were encouraged to explore the grounds on our own. Outside the conservatory, a panorama of green awaited, with an expanse of rolling lawns that perfectly matched the scale of the gargantuan library and museum.
Discrete garden areas transport visitors to plant communities that are worlds apart. The Desert Garden is packed with cacti glowing golden, the sharp relief of spikes and spines, and flaming red euphorbia blooms that shine in the sunlight. Inside the Jungle Garden, the cooling sound of waterfalls guide you through rich green undergrowth, shaded by a canopy dripping with vines. The drier, more open Australian Garden is punctuated by exfoliating Eucalyptus, absurdly plump bottle trees (Brachychiton rupestris), and mass plantings of kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos sp.) The serene Japanese and Chinese Gardens interpret a different continent entirely—not just for visitors, but also for films ranging from Memoirs of a Geisha to Ironman II.
One of the last stops was the Children’s Garden, an artful and entertaining space for tykes ages two to seven, designed to create a positive garden experience for the young (and young at heart). Interactive magnetic sculptures, a myriad of water features, and places to climb, crawl and run leave children thoroughly charmed.
We too left the botanic gardens thoroughly charmed—not only by the horticulture, but by the hospitality of the staff members who offered a glimpse into the heart of The Huntington.
Photos by Dongah Shin