Botanical Portraits9 March, 2015
Shaggy-haired palms thrive alongside heady herbs and sturdy cypress; the Jungle neighbors the Desert; and delicate camellia, a winter bloom, shares its home with hardy aloe and agave and squat Golden Barrel cacti that look like pincushions.
There are worlds within San Marino’s Huntington Botanical Gardens.
A stroll through the Rose Garden — awash in color, from butter yellow to burgundy — gives way to a glimpse of Japan, with a glass-surface koi pond and a century-old bridge shaped like the moon. Next comes Australia, with its hundred species of eucalyptus and ruby-red kangaroo paw; just ahead lies the desert, mirage-like, with cacti as tall as people and an assortment of succulents just as diverse.
There are additional gardens, of course, but the estate is also host to world-renowned art collections that include works by Gainsborough, Warhol, and Rauschenberg, and a research library revered for its extensive array of rare books and manuscripts.
Long a Southern California institution, The Huntington was founded in 1919 by businessman Henry Huntington and his wife, Arabella. Once a fully functioning ranch, the property evolved to support the couple’s growing collections of art and books, as well as an interest in botany. Today, it’s a private nonprofit known not only for its resources (and its impeccable beauty), but also for its ability to attract a varied group of scholars and artists; botanists and bibliophiles; day-trippers, tourists, and LA locals alike.
What’s more, The Huntington manages to foster a sense of both community and isolation. As much as it’s alive with movement and conversation, it’s also abundantly accommodating of a need for stillness — a rare feat, especially in a city as large as Los Angeles. It’s not uncommon to spot visitors spending the day solo, taking in the scenery from garden benches, or sketching, or strolling the grounds in silence, savoring the breathing space. Here, it feels possible to get lost, and, from time to time — standing in a sea of blossoms or wandering shaded walkways lined in slender bamboo — to feel alone.
Of course, that’s an illusion. In the gardens, visitors are guests at the home of myriad varieties of life.
“The plants are as different as people,” said one sightseer on a sun-soaked December day. Each has a name, some more recognizable than others (in the Rose Garden, for example, are Audrey Hepburn, Anne Boleyn, Peter Mayle, and the Crown Princess Margareta). And like people, each has a shape, color, and personality all its own. Shaggy-haired palms thrive alongside heady herbs and sturdy cypress; the Jungle neighbors the Desert; and delicate camellia, a winter bloom, shares its home with hardy aloe and agave and squat Golden Barrel cacti that look like pincushions.
As with people, it’s fascinating to watch each evolve by the season. It makes visiting, time and time again, a treat. You never know what surprises await — and in a place of many worlds, there’s always more to discover.