Anticipation. The telltale thrill begins the moment you park the car and walk through the impressive entrance of The Huntington to an olive-lined allée; and it stays with you all day long as you work your way through more than fifteen exquisitely and expertly themed gardens on 120 acres in Southern California.
If that were all the visitor could expect, that would surely be enough – yet the Huntington is more than just a world-renowned center of horticultural research and educational displays; it is also a repository for over six million works of American and British literature and home to four galleries of priceless American and European works of art. Where else can one discover a Gutenberg Bible and wander through a Chinese Garden on the same day?
And that’s only the beginning.
Henry and Arabella Huntington transferred the ownership of their San Marino home, gardens and extensive art collection to a non-profit educational trust in 1919. That gift has allowed millions of academics and visitors to benefit exponentially, and in turn add to the continuing education programs, display gardens and research conducted there to this day. The visitor with one day to explore may be justifiably torn as to which way to head first.
The scale is both awe-inspiring and intimate. Whether walking past marble sculptures along the North Vista (the scene of several familiar Hollywood films), or navigating waterfalls in the Jungle Garden, the visitor is completely immersed in a particular theme. Gardens such as the not-to-be-missed Desert Garden are so thickly and diversely planted that you may find yourself disappointed the next time you visit a real desert and realize the scope of what you once witnessed at the Huntington.
I have a particular soft spot for this extraordinary place, for in my early twenties, my husband and I lived in nearby Pasadena on a very tight budget. We bought a yearly membership to The Huntington, which we used almost every weekend just to walk the grounds, stare at great works of art and generally elevate the senses. Visiting again recently after nearly twenty years, I was struck by the improvements to a place I simply didn’t think could be improved.
Newest amongst those improvements: The Chinese Garden, which is connected to the famous Japanese Garden by a long forested walkway. The scale is mind-blowing. As you walk around the 1.5 acre lake surrounded by numerous pavilions and bridges linking traditional Suzhou-style scholar gardens, you may catch the fragrance of soy and stir-fried vegetables on the air. It’s not your imagination, The Chinese Garden also boasts a dumpling and noodle house with open air dining that looks over the lake.
Near this garden is another newer feature of The Huntington – the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory and the adjoining Children’s Garden. Children’s gardens have been extremely popular over the last fifteen years and The Huntington does not disappoint, giving kids texture-rich plantings, garden rooms, structural forts and winding pathways that lead to enchanted places such as The Fog Grotto - a space that fills with moisture-rich fog only to be swept clean by a magical breeze.
If you visit during peak rose season in April, you will immediately understand why this area of the world hosts The Rose Parade every year. The Huntington’s Rose Garden is one of the oldest parts of the garden and boasts over 1,200 cultivars. When the sun is strong or the air is heavy at dusk, you can almost find this garden by scent – though the many herbs and flowers in the nearby Shakespeare Garden might make it a little challenging.
The Mediterranean climate enjoyed by Southern California makes so much possible for gardeners, but it can also be uncomfortably hot for those not used to it. If you are visiting the Huntington during the summer months, it is wise to walk through two or three gardens, then take advantage of the beauty and educational opportunities in one of the three galleries, main house or library, (whilst also taking advantage of the air-conditioning). With a map in your hand and a plan in your head, you can enjoy all the Huntington has to offer without exhausting yourself and your companions.
“Enjoy being overwhelmed.” says The Huntington’s website – and there is no hyperbole in this statement. It’s overwhelming certainly, but in the best possible way for the gardener, scholar, artist ... or just for a couple of fresh-faced twenty-somethings enjoying all that this world-class garden has to offer.
Text by Marianne Willburn of smalltowngardener.com; Images by Wendy Hatoum, High Country Gardens
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