California’s Best Public Garden

My recent travels included an April Fool’s Day visit to the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino (near Pasadena). I visited this extraordinary garden before, but not for several years, and was pleased that it continues to develop and to delight.

The Gardens, spread over 120 acres, include numerous thematic areas, several of which are “world-class” gardens: some oriented to geographical regions (Japan, China, Australia, etc.), some focusing on categories of plants (roses, palms, cacti & succulents, herbs, etc.) and others emphasizing garden-related topics (Shakespeare Garden, Children’s Garden, Jungle Garden, etc.) Something for every gardener!

One of my favorites, the Japanese Garden, was closed through spring 2012 for renovation. A nearby part of the world was represented, however, by the new Chinese Garden, “Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance,” which was opened in 2008. This a spectacular garden includes twenty-four poetically named features, e.g., Love for the Lotus Pavilion, Isle for Welcoming Cranes, and Bridge of Strolling in the Moonlight. Already fascinating for its specimen plants, architectural design and scenic views, it is still evolving with support from numerous donors.

My companions for the day, a Master Gardener and spouse from Tuscon, were most interested in the Desert Garden, which includes cacti, succulents and other zerophytes. It is unquestionably one of the world’s finest gardens of its kind, with specimens of more than 5,000 species from many continents. The garden began in 1907-08 with a half-acre of cacti and succulents from Mexico, and by 1981 grew to its present ten acres.

The Desert Garden includes sixty plant beds, with areas dedicated to Old World plants, North America, the low southeastern part of South America and South Africa.

One plant I found intriguing was the Chilean Puya alpestris, related to the young Puya berteroniana (“Blue Puya”) in my garden. This succulent produces “six- to ten-foot flowering spikes of metallic, deep turquoise flowers highlighted by vivid orange stamens in summer.” The Huntington’s large collection of these “otherworldly” plants was not in bloom during our visit, but it had numerous stalks with buds ready to open. Fortunately, there were many other plants in bloom for us to enjoy.

We also toured the historically oriented Rose Garden, which has nearly twelve hundred species and cultivars on display. Our visit was early in the season, but many roses were already in bloom, providing a generous sample of the species and hybrids of the much-loved rose.

There are other fine public botanical gardens and arboreta in California, but the Huntington Botanical Gardens is larger, more diverse and better maintained than any others that I have visited.

If the opportunity arises for you to visit the Los Angeles area, schedule at least a day to visit the Huntington Gardens.


The full name of this impressive resource is The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. As the name indicates, the site includes

  • A research library of some six million rare books and manuscripts in British and American history and literature, including an exhibit hall where visitors can see such literary treasures as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible on vellum,  an enormous (“double elephant”) folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, and much more.
  • An extensive art collection, displayed in three buildings:
    • The Huntington Art Galley has on of the finest collections of European art in the nation;
    • The Virginia Steel Scott Galleries of American Art include American art from the colonial period through the middle of 20th century; and
    • The MaryLou and George Boone Gallery hosts changing exhibitions.
  • The Botanical Gardens, with their many thematic areas, over 120 acres.

There is much to see and appreciate. While you might visit “The Huntington” primarily for the gardens, include some time to see its library and art resources as well. Here is the link to The Huntington’s website, where there is all the information you will find useful.

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