If you have only one day to spend in Pasadena, this is it. The Huntington Botanical Gardens are, in a word, splendid. In each of the eighteen specialty sections, including the relatively new Chinese Garden of Flowing Fragrance, the landscaping is both formal and refreshingly beckoning.
Railroad magnate Henry Edwards Huntington purchased this citrus-ranch property in 1903. Originally 600 acres, today it’s a “manageable” 207 acres, 150 of which are panned and open to the public. In 1904 Huntington hired a landscape supervisor William Hertrich to begin the botanical collections; H.E died in 1927, but Hertrich continued on until 1948. Today, their handiwork is the visitor’s holiday.
Upon arrival try to snag the free daily garden tour, or go with a self-guided exploration. South of the entrance are four acres of spectacular decorative palms (H.E’s favorite for public gardens and railway stations), and to the east is the twelve-acre desert garden which Hertrich convinced his boss, the collector, to build not as a specialty garden but as a noteworthy collection for an area with difficult soil. Today, 5,000 species of exotic xerophytes (aridity-adapted plants) make this a living lab, complete with a conservatory and quite useful to botanical science and education.
Through the main entrance and straight ahead past the Palm and Jungle Gardens, the oldest section is the four-acre lily ponds, finished by Hertrich in 1904; he installed a heated lining to extend the lilies’ blooming season. As you walk back through the Jungle and Subtropical gardens, you’ll see half of the known species of prehistoric cycads, sort of a cross between a palm and a conifer.
The most heavily planted gardens are those surrounding the Art Collections gallery, formerly H.E’s private residence. The formal Shakespeare Garden holds plants referenced int he Bard’s works, many of whose original manuscripts are in the Huntington Library. The North Vista is woven with palms and antique statuary, terminating with an ornate, oversize fountain. West of the Art Collections, the three-acre historical Rose Garden features more than 1,800 species and cultivars in 40 planted beds. As is true with most Southern California rose gardens, April is the prettiest month (before all that deadheading begins), but blooms occur from March through December. Climbing roses cover pergolas leading to the graceful Japanese garden which was assembled in 1912, when all things Japanese were the rage. The walled Zen garden, with its swath of fine raked gravel, is a copy of a famed temple in Kyoto. Beyond are the extensive camellia groves, grown from seed, propagated and grafted by Hertrich over a 30-year period and cataloged in three volumes. In a northerly section, behind a tall, lacy gate, stands the stately marble Huntington Mausoleum, designed by John Russell Pope of Jefferson Memorial fame.
Huntington was also presciently interested in old trees; it is said that he encouraged all efforts to save endangered trees and that modern tree surgery began here. As for the citrus that once covered this land, a twenty-acre grove remains.
The most recent feather in the Huntington’s chapeau is the amazing Liu Fang Yuan (Garden of Flowing Fragrance), which opened in 2008. Most of the building elements were constructed in Suzhou, China, home of famed gardens from the 16th and 17th centuries, on which this convergence of art, architecture and nature was modeled. Bottlenecks may occur at any of the seven pavilions, but they’re worth any minor wait. The lovely Terrace of the Jade Mirror, a reference to the moon, features incredible hand-carved wood panels, whose maintenance in the blistering Southern California sun makes us shudder. If you don’t want to reserve a month in advance for a guided tour, download the free walking-tour podcast in Mandarin, Cantonese or English at huntington.org.
For those not even remotely interested in botany, art or literature (and if that’s you, scram, you bum!), happiness also awaits. The darling Tea Room is not nearly as stuffy as it could be. Ham-fisted sandwiches and good salads without the clatter of silverware are served around the corner at the Café, which is less expensive by half than the Tea Room.
1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino
Open Mon., Wed., Thurs., Fri. noon-4:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Adults $15-$20, Seniors $12-$15, Students $10, Kids $6, kids 5 and under free
First Thursday of every month is free
It’s worth joining if you visit more than twice a year