I recently enjoyed a fabulous day at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens – a day spent as part of the annual ASLA National Conference and Expo. The conference hosts over 5,000 landscape architects, landscape design professionals, urban designers, planners, and vendors in Downtown Los Angeles. Alongside a varied schedule of speakers, field sessions like the botanical garden tour I attended at the Huntington are hosted to bring attendees out into the SoCal landscape.
The Huntington Botanical Gardens Director Jim Folsom took time from his busy schedule directing the prestigious Orchid Show to lead our tour. With the aid of Elisa Read from Rios, Clemente and Hale and Jeremy Klevin, ASLA from SWA, they worked together to plan and design a fun and educational time for all 20+ horticulture enthusiasts who came from all over the country to spend the day across the garden grounds.
It turned out to be a beautiful day, cool and fortunately without any of the hot-dry fast moving Santa Ana winds that can sometimes unexpectedly spoil outdoor activities. We began with a bus ride along the 110 freeway, and along the way Jim shared many fun facts about the park, followed by Bill Ropp, who worked closely with the Huntington for over two decades on the development of the Chinese Garden. Once we arrived, we were afforded time for a few photos before David MacLaren, the garden’s Asian Gardens Gardens Cultural Curator and Bill led us into the Chinese Gardens.
I found myself fascinated by the Chinese Gardens’ pond, particularly its seasonal reservoir designed to provide irrigation water for the plants within the park. I was informed the pond’s water is partially pumped water twice a year in the summer to remove the heavy phosphates caused by the feed used for the collection of koi. The pond is refilled with water from the site’s wells. I also learned the fish hang out in at a depth of 10′ – 12’, where no algae grows.
Afterward, Program Director Robert Hori and Landscape Architect Keiji Uesugi led us on a tour of the Japanese Garden – an awe-inspiring landscape. We reveled over how each stone was carefully placed along the way leading into the private tea garden. Great care and thought was put into the placement of every element of the garden’s design; gardens traditionally are considered three-dimensional textbooks of Daoist and Zen Buddhist belief in Japan, thus the precise and meaningful placement of every element.
After lunch, Landscape Architect John Pearson from the Office of Cheryl Barton, Head Gardener Seth Baker, and Jim Folsom spoke in detail about the development of the entry garden, a design incorporating California native and drought tolerant plants, and one rich with plant diversity. Jim then whisked us to the nearby Conservatory, where a most distinct and famously malodorous plant awaited. Nobody could miss the Amorphophallus titanum (Corpse Plant) that towered above us. My own “stinky plant” Penelope is re-emerging now. The sight of Huntington’s grand specimen only made me wonder if my own corpse plant will reveal itself to be a benign leaf or pungent flower?
Eventually after touring a living systems aquarium and the Children’s Garden, our group made its way to see the orchid show. The show was incredible in size, with three spacious rooms filled with award winning plants, alongside a variety of plants for sale within a tented area. The colors of the orchids ranged from pale yellows to bright reds, a spectacular selection representing Orchidaceae.
Perhaps the biggest treat of the day was a behind-the-scenes tour of the Huntington Ranch. Located near the citrus grove and the final resting place of Henry E. Huntington inside the site’s mausoleum, an expansive garden was revealed. The borders were all constructed from San Gabriel River rocks, intentionally an affordable design choice reflecting of the surrounding landscape.
With all this walking (totaling 10 miles of moderate walking), my knee eventually began troubling me. Fortunately, Danielle Rudeen was available to help me and others get to our last site and what I consider the jewel of the park: the desert garden!
John Trager led our group through the cactus garden. I remembered learning during my last visit why the Echinocactus grusonii (Barrel Cactus) leaned a little south: Desert Curator Gary Lyons shared that day that they don’t get enough light in Southern California, so the cactus stretch and lean towards the sun!
It was nearly 4pm when we finished touring the desert garden, just in time to join rush hour and find ourselves stuck in a traffic jam during our bus ride return. We made the best of it, trading DTLA stories, sharing tourist destination recommendations, secret garden sites, and foodie fixes. It turned out to be a great day, and I cannot thank everyone at the Huntington enough. The work put into the gardens each and every day is greatly appreciated by the design community and public alike, and it was great to hear so many attendees planning weekend trips to check out the gardens again on their own.
Plants are continually coming and going from the Huntington Gardens’ collection – just like its visitors. Wait six months, and the Huntington Gardens will present an entirely new experience.