Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Huntington Library and Gardens - a slice of paradise in Los Angeles

The Huntington Library and Gardens lie in the lea of the San Gabriel mountains
The Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, California, former home of Henry E. Huntington, a successful 20th century railroad magnate, are just a stone's throw from downtown Los Angeles. Today they rank in the world's top gardens, and deservedly so, but don't expect to see everything in a day because this is more than a horticultural paradise, showcasing plants and trees from around the world; it's also a museum and library, housing formidable collections of both art and books, all acquired by Huntington when he finally retired from business.
The impressive Huntington pergola leads from the Rose garden to the Japanese garden
The Huntington Library Art Collection and Botanical Gardens cover more than 200 acres at the heart of an exclusive San Marino residential area, with more than half open to the public. Add to this three art galleries and a library filled with rare books and manuscripts and you soon realise that the $25.00 entrance fee is not so steep. Visitors clearly agree because numbers top 600,000 a year, all eager to see the legacy that Huntington left to the nation. And, if there is one garden to see in California, this should be top of your list.
Vast tracks of greenery display trees and plants from around the world
It is not just the size and scope of Huntington that makes this garden so impressive, it is also the diversity of plants and the 12 magnificent themed gardens at the property, including Chinese, Japanese, Australian, Palm and Desert, to name just a few. The Desert Garden is particularly impressive - a massive 12-acre plot, dedicated to succulents and cacti that will make your head spin, described by the well-known Brazilian landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx as "the most extraordinary garden in the world."
Don't miss the lily ponds with their impressive clivia displays
Henry Huntington first discovered the San Gabriel Valley in 1893, en route to San Francisco with his uncle, Collis Huntington, who was then president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, when they stopped and stayed overnight at the 600-acre San Marino Ranch, which he finally bought for himself 20 years later in 1903. In the same year the talented horticulturalist, William Hertrich arrived in California, and Huntington hired him the following year as grounds superintendent and landscape gardener. Together they created the backbone of the gardens we see today.
Roberto Burle Marx described the Desert area as "the most extraordinary garden in the world"
It was Hertrich who encouraged his employer to create the Desert Garden at San Marino, and during his time at the property he became a plant explorer in his own right as he searched far and wide for the plants growing there today, travelling widely throughout the southern US, Mexico and further afield to acquire new specimens for his employer. Huntington was committed to providing the financial support to develop his San Marino plot, but also spent much of his time, acquiring both the works of art and books and manuscripts that make up his extraordinary museum collections.
The Japanese Garden was one of the first areas to be developed by Huntington and Hertrich
Visit in springtime and autumn and you will see the Japanese Garden - one of the first created on the site, when Huntington and Hertrich were hard at work landscaping the estate - in full bloom in the early part of the year, filled with a riot of colour provided by the flowering azaleas and camellias; go back in the fall to see the magnificent autumn colours provided by the extensive acer collection. But don't forget to visit the adjacent Chinese Garden, opened in 2008, which is one of only four in the continental US. It has a very different feel to it, with its minimalist planting and lakeside pavilions, and is best explored by taking the wheelchair route, which leads down to the Japanese Garden and gives fine views from above.
Don't miss the Chinese Garden, opened in 2008, with its minimalist planting and lakeside pavilions
During his time at his magnificent home in San Marino, Huntington also made a bride of his late uncle Collis' wife Arabella, who became one of the great American art collectors and together they acquired many of the priceless paintings on display at the Museum today - a collection that includes masterpieces by Blake, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Turner, as well as the earliest known edition of Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales', just one of many  rare manuscripts in the library. 
But towards the end of their married life together, Arabella spent less and less time in San Marino, preferring her grand houses in New York and the south of France, so Henry devoted himself to his home and his grounds, with Hertrich as his right-hand man. Arabella died in 1924 and three years later, Henry followed her to the grave, leaving his extraordinary legacy to the American nation.
The Desert Garden is spectacular in springtime

Nearly a century later, the Huntington is one of the most famous gardens in the continental US - home to an extraordinary combination of visual treats for both art and horticultural fanatics. From early September (Labour Day) to the end of May it is only open to non-members from midday during the week and closes at 4.30 p.m. which allows too little time to savour what's on offer. Weekend openings are longer, and you can visit from 10.30 in the morning. It is only in high summer - June, July and August that the doors open daily from 10.30. It is always closed on Tuesdays.

For more US gardens, click here

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