Botanical Pilgrimage to the Huntington

The Huntington Botanical Garden is among the great wonders of the horticultural world. Make a pilgrimage in spring or summer to see the Desert Garden in flower.

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What makes a great garden are large mature specimens that exhibit the natural growth habit and characteristics of a species in the wild. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

Pilgrim Catholics go to Rome, Jews to Israel, Buddhists to Tibet and Muslims to Mecca. For devotees of those curious plants with succulent flesh, the pilgrimage to take is without question to the Huntington Botanical Garden. The final destination: its 12-acre Desert Garden with a phenomenal 4,000 species from dry climates around the world. Nowhere else is there such a stunning collection of these succulents in quantity, maturity and diversity.

Gathered from Mexico and South America, these are but a few specimens of stenocereus cleistocactus. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)
Surrounded by monumental yuccas and agaves, this field of golden barrel cacti illustrates the remarkable scale of this garden. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)
The Huntington features one of the most extensive collections of living stones in North America. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)
Open at 2 p.m. for just a couple of hours, this incredible collection of small succulents organized by genus is a virtual living museum. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)
The upper part of the Desert Garden is devoted to exotic succulents from Africa and Madagascar, including many species of euphorbia, aloe, pachypodium and cyphostemma. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

The garden world has gone nuts of late over succulents. These include a huge number of plants from southern Africa and Madagascar as well as the Middle East. It is also rich in New World succulents, including the whole family of cacti, fleshy agaves and other desert dwelling plants.

But until recently cacti and succulents were not so hot unless you lived in Palm Springs or Phoenix. Twenty years ago the Huntington Desert Garden, located in San Marino, Calif., appealed mostly to purists. Visitors might enjoy it, but few would understand the magnitude of the succulent world or this collection. Then Jim Folsom took over direction of the collection, styles changed and all of a sudden succulents became the darlings of trendy garden designers.

Over the last two decades the Desert Garden has truly come into its own in size, quantity and diversity. Old specimens have grown to monumental proportions. If a towering old yucca grows in other public gardens, at the Huntington there will be five of them. Elsewhere a group of golden barrel cactus may exist, but at the Huntington there are a hundred the size of garbage cans! This is so important because you can see the natural variation within the species and how the plants look when fully mature. Your observations will tell you a lot about how plants can be expected to grow in your yard and in the wild.

The Desert Garden has broken out of the confines of a botanical display. The garden designers have begun to combine plants for their overall aesthetic impact, using form and color to bounce one species off another in the same genus or group. This kind of comparison is super valuable, allowing you to see how they differ. And you learn which plants to group for maximum visual impact.

If you are not a succulent plant junky, you'll likely miss some of the smaller outdoor wonders. At the top of the slope there are rocky outcroppings under the trees. Amidst the rock are colonies of small ground-hugging haworthias, gasterias and miniature aloes that are almost always grown in pots, never in garden soil. Yet at the hands of the skilled staff they have not only become established in ground, they are spreading into dense fields.
Be sure your stay includes time in the afternoon because the greenhouse opens at 2 p.m. This is well worth the wait because it is here where the true depth of this collection is really visible. Spotlessly cared for, the interior collections are a container gardener's dream.

The displays are organized by genera. Among them is the largest grouping of living stones in America, tiny plants known as Lithops. The collection of caudiciform plants is equally rare. These plants produce very thick stems that can look like twisted sweet potatoes. The stem serves as a water storage structure known as a caudex, which is exposed gradually by lowering the soil just as bonsai masters reveal the roots of their stunted trees. And like bonsai, these plants take decades to create.

The Huntington Botanical Garden is among the great wonders of the horticultural world. Make a pilgrimage in spring or summer to see the Desert Garden in flower. And even if you've been there before, you'll find out this collection isn't "just a cactus garden" any more.

For days and hours the garden is open log on to the Huntington Botanical Garden website at or call 626-405-2100.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at For more information, visit : or Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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