Photo by Melody

The Huntington Botanical Gardens

By Geoff Stein (palmbobMarch 26, 2010

Four years ago I got involved in Dave's Garden and started to upload palm photos to the site. And realized the Huntington Botanical Gardens, right in my ‘back yard’ here in southern California was a treasure trove of potential plant photos of hundreds, if not thousands of other species as well, just waiting for me to collect. Since then I have uploaded nearly 12500 photos of which at least ¼ are from plants at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. Since I calculate then that at least 2% of all the photos on this web site are from this single location, I should at least write an article about the place.

Gardening picture

(Editor's Note:  This article was originally published on January 22, 2008.)

Henry E Huntington was a very successful business man with a Renaissance taste in art, science and gardens. He established the Huntington foundation in 1919 and began to collect books, art and plants from all over the world. Though the libraries and art collections are impressive, to me they are just icing on the cake of one of the finest botanical gardens in the world.


Jacarandas one walks under on way to entrance

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Huntington entrance and one of the Coral Trees one encounters right on the other side once in the gardens

The gardens are spread among 120 acres of rolling southern California southwest-facing hillside in one of the wealthiest and most heavily planted neighborhoods in southern California (there is so much vegetation in the Pasadena area that a new and more tropical microclimate, far superior for growing tender plants, has evolved over the last 100 years). The gardens are divided up into over a dozen different themes, including a rose garden, a Japanese garden, a huge Australian garden, the conifer collection, a tropical jungle, a brand new conservatory, a children’s garden… and, best of all, a huge desert garden, where the bulk of the botanical garden’s species reside.

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two shots showing the expanse of the grounds with Agathis robusta, an 100' tall tree in one photo, and a English Oak in the other (on the right)

Probably the most popular area, during the right seasons, is the rose garden. I have taken hundreds of photographs of roses there and uploaded about half of those. Unfortunately the labels for the roses are placed in such a way one cannot always tell which rose goes to which sign, which has lead to my uploading at least a dozen incorrectly labeled rose photos. I have since decided roses are NOT my area of expertise so I should not be attempting to add any more to the plant files. It appears many other members are taking up the slack, so no loss there.

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Roses in fall, in the rose garden on left, and shot of a Magnolia in winter with the rose trellises in the background

The Japanese garden is an immaculately kept place with dozens of wonderful botanical specimens from large Japanese maples and pines, to forests of bamboo and grasses. It is a serene place, complete with its own rock garden where one can meditate to, and a fantastic collection of very old bonsai trees. There are some amazing Cycad revolutas, too (Sago Palms) but it is not a place I visit more than once a year as it looks the same all the time.


Japanese Maple in the Japanese garden in summer

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bonsai pine and Hollywood Juniper bonsai in the Japanese garden

One can get sort of lost in the Australian garden as it covers about ¼ of the land of the gardens (if you include the huge expanse of lawn on 3 sides of it). There are dozens of Eucalyptus species, cycads, Grevelias, Bottle brush trees etc. But again, it is not a place I see much more since it doesn’t change all that much. But it is more dynamic than the Japanese garden which has very little in bloom throughout the year.

The conifer collection is even less dynamic, but it is evolving slowly as new species are planted every year in the giant lawn that borders it. I have no idea how many trees are in it, but one could spend a good hour at least looking at them all.


only a small part of the Huntington's extensive conifer collection

It is in the jungle that I used to spend most of my time, wandering up and down sidewalks and through the palm garden, photographing everything that was labeled for future reference. Of course, jungle landscapes are one of the hardest things to photograph and very few photos in the darkest parts ever come out for me (life as an amateur photographer is tough when you have never graduated beyond the ‘auto’ setting on your digital camera). I have since pretty much given up trying to get good photos of some of the taller, sparser plants in the jungle.


Waterfull in the heart of the jungle section of the Huntington Gardens

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two different views of the extensive palm garden

The new Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory is a wonderful addition to the garden, and thankfully well supplied with tropical palms that, for the most part, look quite happy in there. It has misters going off all day long keeping up the humidity so care must be taken when wandering about with a sensitive digital camera. Sadly it is a relatively short building, and some palms are already reaching for the top in just the few years it’s been there. I was hoping they would build something a bit more palm-friendly… at least 4-5 stories high, but I guess that’s just asking too much.

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The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory outside, and inside, showing a Plectocomia rattan palm growing toward the ceiling

It is the desert collection that I think is a photographers paradise- this garden is enormous, full of trails (including many which are closed to the public, sadly) and allows one to see and photograph thousands of plants, most with decent lighting and little competition from other plants. The garden extends from the top of the acreage to the bottom, and all of it facing southeast- the best direction to face for heat and sun exposure in the winter. It is almost always in full sun, and the cold mostly trickles down and settles at the bottom of the garden. This makes a nearly ideal climate for most of the tender succulents that would otherwise be struggling in a small, somewhat shaded, flat back yard in the surrounding neighborhood. There is a nice greenhouse on the desert grounds full of hundreds of old and very carefully managed specimens, all worthy of winning a first place in most cactus and succulent shows. Many a photo on Davesgarden has come from that little greenhouse.

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three views of the desert garden up close


View outside the desert garden greenhouse


and view of the greenhouse from within

And the best thing about this part of the garden is it is always changing. There are at least a dozen, if not hundreds of plants blooming at all months of the year. But winter is the best time of all, when there is little to photograph in the rest of the garden. There are literally hundreds of aloes in flower all winter long, and many other odd and exotic succulents showing off this time of year as well. Winter is the time of year I visit the gardens most.

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Aloes in full bloom in mid winter on left, with Puyas in bloom in background in April in photo on right

The garden has a long list of events going on all the time, including rotating art exhibits, library collections as well as a long list of plant related activities. Every month there is some visiting plant expert talking about his/her specialty (on a day of the week when I am always working and can never go). Often there will be an associated sale with that. Then there are the large scientific plant conferences (this year the cycad conference, a few years ago, a large bamboo conference) that attract botanists from around the globe. And last, but not least, are the periodic plant sales and shows during the warmer months of the year. At least 2 cactus and succulent shows are hosted by the Huntington yearly (a source for about 20% of my entire plant collection I would say) as well as two general plant sales (huge events) in the spring and fall. All are excellent photographic opportunities as well as great chances to see and acquire new and bizarre plants.


Cactus sale in summer under the Jacarandas

The gardens are visited by over 500,000 guests a year, many with cameras and some obviously professional photographers. It is not unusual to see several people with tripods slowly wandering the desert garden waiting for the perfect lighting, or a hummingbird to feast from an aloe flower. It is about as close to a photographers paradise as I can imagine.

The Huntington has a pretty active web site one can visit: and it even includes dozens of photos of ‘what’s flowering this month’ every month of the year. But one really needs to see the place in person. It is worth a trip to Pasadena just to see this garden. And bring your camera!

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  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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