Tag Archives: Huntington Library Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

“plants are up to something”

I loved this banner at the Huntington. Hanging outside the instution’s conservatory building, it announces that the exhibits inside might be more oriented towards education than the gardens that make up the rest of the grounds. The conservatory also houses plants that might have special needs beyond the “just add water” plantings located in the subtropics outdoors.

Pass through the front doors and you step into a greenhouse space containing a miniature tropical rainforest, a cloud forest and a bog garden, along with lots of educational signs and interactive exhibits scattered throughout the space.

For me most greenhouses and conservatory gardens suffer from being examples of nature-in-a-can, and to me they tend to look and smell and feel very similar in their hermetically sealed spaces. If only the Huntington were located on some barren snowy tundra plain, where entering a tropical rainforest on a cold winter day might be a stunning revelation.

Even on this cool December Southern California afternoon, the temperature differences between inside and out weren’t that pronounced. And the lush plantings outside the front door seemed to mirror the lushly planted indoors. Still, lacking the stunning contrasts that might help to set the conservatory apart from the outdoors, it was a fun place to connect with a lot of cool plants. When the Huntington’s giant corpse-flower (Amorphophallus titanum) blooms, there is where you’ll find it. It wasn’t blooming, but there were lots of other interesting things inside.

The bright red-orange trunks of the sealing-wax palm, Cyrtosstachys renda were pretty amazing.

My visit was two days before Christmas, so there were this holiday display of poinsettias and amaryllis. At first they seemed like gratuitous holiday decorations but then the aha moment struck me that these plants originate in the tropical and subtropical belt of the Americas.

Floral parts of a large anthurium species…

This carnivorous Asian pitcher plant (a species of Nepenthes) greeted visitors as they entered the cloud forest display.

And dropping down into the bog garden, American pitcher plants, Sarracenia, and sundews, Drosera sp., let viewers see other ways plants have taken up carnivorous ways. (Do you detect a theme of the conservatory playing up the idea of scary, creepy plants, going from these carnivorous species to the stinking giant corpse flower that lines up visitors by the hundreds when it does its thing?)

At this point the blogger rambles on a bit: These days it almost seems that every botanical collection feels to have its very own giant corpse flower plant that will draw the visitors when it blooms, something of the way medieval churches tried to draw pilgrims by having unique relics of saints, or how many temples in Asia will claim to have preserved hairs of the Buddha. So it seems that the giant corpse flowers has become a modern secular botanical relic. It’s a little odd, since you can occasionally find the plant for sale on eBay–granted for a good chunk of change–but still nothing much more than you’d pay for a pair of high-end jeans.

Okay, now back to the trip…

I’m coming to the realization that greenhouses always scare me a bit, like I’m entering a world that’s on perpetual life support. Upon leaving the conservatory I stepped outside into the bright December afternoon. Not far away a reader was seated in warming sunlight on a Lutyens bench, enjoying the moment. I’d had a good time on my visit to the synthetic tropics, but returning to the real sunshine and real weather outdoors I suddenly felt free.

the huntington desert garden

The late-December light was fading when I headed to the wild and wonderful plants that make up the Huntington’s Desert Garden. The garden dates back many decades and features some immense specimens the likes of which you’ll almost never see. But what I love most about the garden is that it incorporates these great plants into landscapes that both honor the plants and use them in striking combinations.

Many aloes were blooming with their dramatic spikes of hot, bright colors. The theatrical lighting helped to make some of the scenes even more dramatic.

(Be sure to click onthe third image to enlarge it. In its unearthly weirdness, it’s got to be one of my favorite garden photos I’ve ever taken.)

One zone of the garden focuses on plants you’d find in California. Here a creosote bush serves as a screen for a radiant gray-white agave.

And this scene employs the coastal and Channel Island buckwheat, Saint Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)–a plant that technically doesn’t come from a desert–with other dryland plants. The gray-green foliage on all of them helps to unify this diverse planting.

The Huntington is in a warm subtropical area just east of Los Angeles. That doesn’t mean that it’s warm enough for all of these plants. Patio heaters of the kind that you see outdoors at restaurants keep plants warm at night in one area of the garden. (These are the frigid depths of December, after all.)

Now, as much as I was trying to focus on the overall landscape, I have to share a few photos of individual species that caught my eye.

Looking up at a very large Yucca filifera from Mexico…

(There’s an extremely similar shot of the exact same plant on the Germanatrix’s post on her visit to this same garden at the end of November. Check it out: here.)

Two tall palms with immense tree aloes, Aloe barberae. At the Huntington the species is identified as A. bainesii, but the taxonomists have had a change of heart. I have two of these in my little front yard, the tallest of them still under twenty feet but still impressive at that size. The writeup on this plant says it can hit fifty feet or more. The Huntington specimens are just about there, I’d guess.

A dynamic and lyrical tangle of leaves on several plants of the variegated form of Agave americana… (Homage to somebody… later Willem de Kooning? Franz Kline?) Agaves with their perfect rosettes seem to appeal to the part of our brains that appreciate symmetry and order. This planting subverted the expected into a beautiful mess.

A tall, dense stand of Cleistocactus straussii

As we left the Huntington the light that had made the Desert Garden extra-interesting was coloring up the flanks of Mount Wilson and the the rest of the San Gabriels.

Not far away from the Huntington is Pasadena, the site of the annual New Year’s Rose Parade, which should be getting under way not long after this post hits the web. (Okay, it’s sort of a lame way to try to segue this post to the topic of New Year’s Day, but–hey!–I had to give it a try.)

Happy New Year’s to all of you, and best wishes for a healthy and prosperous year filled with amazing botanical highlights.

the huntington’s japanese garden

After visiting the dense and somewhat frenetic new Chinese Garden at the Huntington I was feeling like I needed to unwind a bit. Fortunately a short walk at the Huntington delivers you from the Chinese Garden to the Japanese Garden.

Along the way, before you get to the garden itself, as if in a calculated attempt to transition the viewer from one garden to the next, you pass a couple blooming plants that have “Japan” in their species name. Although most of the camellias in bloom were the sansanquas, a few of the Camellia japonica plants were starting their bloom.

And there was this perky yellow species, Farlugium japonicum–with a plant label (Thank you!–I love my plant labels).

One of the first details that I noticed in the Japanese Garden was this walkway edge detail consisting of little loops of thin bamboo.

Whereas many of the hardscape elements in the Chinese Garden seemed to be built to last for the centuries–this photo shows one of the edging details there–the fragile little detail in the Japanese Garden appeared to be set up to celebrate the ephemeral.

All the approaches to the garden deliver the visitor to high vantage points overlooking plantings around a small pond. A moon bridge provides a focal point.

A recreated traditional upper-class Japanese home occupies the highest spot in the garden.

Its doors slide open so that the view from the house is of this garden. Standing outside, you can peer in and get a sense of how life indoors would look like and feel. This structure was moved to this site in 1912, so it and the gardens have been around many more years than the Chinese Garden next door.

Steps from the home lead down and then back up to a walled garden.

A broad walkway divides the garden into two parts. To one side is a symbolic garden of stones and raked gravel, or Karesansui.

To the other side is a simple planting of clipped azaleas, ginkgo trees and what I’m guessing is lawn. The lawn and the tops of the azaleas mounds, however, were covered with fallen leaves off the ginkgo trees. I loved this space in its simplicity and could have spent hours there.

A very few of the ginkgo trees still held on to their startling yellow leaves.

But most of the leaves on the ground were progressing from bright yellow to tan to brown.

Here’s a suggestion for the Huntington: How about setting up a ginkko hotline or RSS or Twitter feed? Desert parks commonly offer wildflower hotlines to alert you of peak flowering. Something similar to let you know when the falling leaves would be at their most spectacular would be great too. Still, it was a gorgeous effect, and it highlighted the natural process of bright yellow leaves aging into less colorful ones.

After the walled garden is a bonsai court containing some spectacular specimens in a simple, rustic setting. The Huntington is in the process of enlarging the display area to make room for more bonsai.

My last shots from the Japanese Garden are of two gorgeous stands of bamboo. A small grove adjacent to the “model home” has a small wooden pathway through it.

A more massive stand occupies a spot at the edge of the garden.

Inside the dark thicket Camellia sasanqua blooms.

What is it about a grove of bamboo that drives visitors to carve their initials into the culms? Grrrrrrr.

A final look at the rhythms and contrapuntal interplay in the bamboo…

framing the garden view

Here are just a few more photos left over from my post yesterday on the Huntington’s recently-opened Chinese Garden.

I mentioned how there were many layers to the spaces there. The following are some of the doors and windows in the garden that help to frame the views and contribute to the sense of layering.

Leaf-shaped window near the Studio of Pure Scents.

Stacked portals of the Terrace of the Jade Mirror.

These last two windows in the outside wall, the Wall of the Colorful Clouds, are interesting in that they’re not perfect squares. The top, left and right sides form part of a square, but their bottom sides parallel the contours of rolling ground where the wall is sited. Even though you’re looking at an element in the human-created hardscape, this technique acknowledges the earth where the wall stands.

Yet to come: posts on the Huntington’s Japanese Garden, Conservatory and Desert Garden.

new huntington chinese garden

On the way up to Los Angeles we had a chance to make a quick stop at the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Their Chinese garden, Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, opened to the public just last year. Fund-raising is ongoing for a second phase of construction, and the plants that are there are still on the young side. Still, it’s not too early to take a look at what’s being billed as the largest garden of its kind outside of China.

Two stone lions guard one of the alternate entrances into the garden.

Hand-carved stonework and elaborate hardscape details figure prominently in the garden’s design. It’s worth taking your time to appreciate the details close up.

This walkway resolves to the adjacent planting in swooping tiled edges.

Patterns made from pebbles fixed in cement take several forms. Here’s one design.

…And a detail of another designs…

…And an overview of yet another of the patterns using pebbles.

These hardscape details are dense and busy. Plantings are also fairly dense, with many kinds of plants used in a small space. Move a few feet in any direction and your view of the garden changes radically.

The overall effect is kaleidoscopic, and the garden encourages active engagement with the space.
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