Monday, May 16, 2011

Huntington Library Gardens Visit

When I was in Junior High, I had this vision of what I would do with my life.  I would found and run a garden that contained a peaceful library and an art museum and had spaces ideal for reflection, serenity, and honest discussion.  There would be a restaurant, because it's hard to feel truly at peace without some coffee or tea to sip while having said discussions, or a perhaps a gourmet panini to munch on.  There would be a place for performances of music and plays.  There would be a menagerie.  It felt special, perfect.  Eventually that idea slid to the wayside because, basically, you need a lot of money to build an Eden like that, and I didn't have any. 

But luckily, some other people (Henry Edwards Huntington and his wife Arabella) did, and they, in the nineteen teens, decided to do what I had dreamed of with their copious railroad money.  On Easter M and I went to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, and it struck me how much this beauteous place matched my childlike vision.  Except for a distinct lack of peacocks and horses- but older me thinks that that's probably okay. 

A view of the North Vista Lawn, the lawn is surrounded by an alley of camellias.  Secret passageways guarded by classical statuary are the best.
We came because we'd heard that the gardens were spectacular; and that they were.  The estate is 207 acres total and the gardens range over 120 acres of that.  That's a lot of gardens!  So much so, that even though we roamed the gardens for three and a half hours, we only managed to see half of the gardens, and never-mind the library and art galleries. 
Please notice how someone placed a camellia on this gentleman's toes.  So "Moses supposes his toeses are roses", huh? Maybe for good reason?
Don't you wonder what these two are conversing about?
And if the multitude of gardens wasn't enough, The Huntington also has several art galleries that house the collections of European and American art begun by Arabella Duval Huntington- a very successful collector.  You recognize the fellow below, don't you?  He lives at the Huntington.  What a wonderful surprise.
Gainsborough's The Blue Boy.  Photo credit:
As often happens when I discover a gem in California, I wish I could take my parents to it.  When I discovered things in Houston, at least I knew I could show it to my parents on their next visit, but for the things I've discovered this year, I don't know if I'll ever be able to show them more than pictures.  That's really sad, since the Huntington also features several works by Mary Cassatt, an American painter, one of few women that could be considered a bona fide Impressionist, and one of my mom's favorite artists. 
This is from the "Shakespeare Garden", where only plants mentioned in the works of Shakespeare may be planted in the garden.  What amazing devotion to the bard's works!  The Columbines in the front (bright yellow star-shaped flowers) are some of my favorites. 
And this! I would love to show my dad this: it's the best rose garden I've ever seen.  Roses in every shape and color.  (It's supposed to represent 2000 years of rose history, and I might understand why if I hadn't been completely dazzled by the blooms).  Roses can be finicky plants, that the gardeners can get this many of them to look this beautiful is truly amazing.

This is just about an eighth of the extensive rose garden, which we came at just about the perfect time to see.  Amazing!
And unlike grocery store flowers, each one of these flowers has a distinct scent. 
The Huntington is more than botanical gardens and several art galleries.  It's also a specialized research institution with some of the finest early books and manuscripts in Anglo-American history.  Gutenberg Bible?  Check.  (pshaw, natch!) Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales? Check.  Double-elephant folio edition of Audubon's Birds of America? check.  And so it goes.    If only I had known about this magical place earlier!
This is the only view of the Japanese garden we could get.  It's closed for renovations until 2012.  What a bummer.  From here it looks like it might be the only Japanese garden I've ever personally seen that might beat out the Fort Worth Botanical Garden's in my list of favorites.
Who doesn't love plants (Angel's Trumpet) with flowers as big as my head?
The Australia Garden.  M exclusively likes plants that look like aliens.
Aside from the Camellia, Shakespeare, Rose, Japanese, and Australian gardens, what takes up the rest of the 120 acres?  I'm glad you asked:  For one, a beautiful "Bonsai Court" with some incredible works of living art.  Some of them were guarded by alarm system. 
This is an azalea bonsai.  Amazing, right?
I'm pretty sure that this is a piece of driftwood, with one tiny tree trained up the side.  Isn't it poetic?

There was also a truly stunning desert garden.  If you think desert plants only come in shades of gray-green, brown-green, gray, beige, and brown, prepare to be amazed: 
Fun fact: usually when you buy a cactus in a plant store or grocery store with a crackly flower on it, it's been hot-glued on.  This flower was not hot-glued. 

This is probably the tallest yucca in the world.  Or so their signs said.  I'd believe them, wouldn't you?
Seeing plants like this, and being aware that Dr. Seuss lived part of his life in California, makes you a little less impressed with his illustrations' creativity, no?
These flowers come from the 'blue-raspberry fruit roll-up' species, don't you think?
Like I said, we spent three and half great hours and we only saw half of the gardens; we didn't get to see the Conservatory for Botanical Science or the Chinese Garden, or the Children's Garden.  We didn't see the library at all, and we barely had time to stroll through the art galleries.  This beautiful place absolutely deserves a return trip.  I can't wait.

So thanks, Henry and Arabella, for using your wealth to make a little piece of heaven on Earth.  I'm grateful. 


  1. I love the idea of the Shakespeare Garden!! Good thing he mentioned so many plants that it can still have variety. Too bad you didn't get to go into the library; I'm sure it's the best part!

  2. So many things I want to comment on! I'll try to be brief.

    First off, random trivia: I just finished reading Wil Wheaton's Memories of the Future, where he mentions that Star Trek: TNG often filmed at the Huntington Library (or at least in the various gardens).

    Second, I bet this is why M prefers plants that look like aliens.

    Third, peacocks are mean.

    Fourth, these are beautiful pictures and thank you very much for all your descriptions! It all sounds and looks like Paradise.

    Fifth, does Belle's Beast know about this rose garden? Slash, did you see any questionable animal tracks nearby that might indicate he does?

    Thank you again for sharing! I loved this post.

  3. Ooh! Major props for the photo of M under Dr Seuss-like yucca plant. Here in my history dept., the Huntington is so well-known that we're sort of on a first-name basis. That is, people will just say, "That manuscript's at the Huntington," or "They've got a lot of [insert amazing olde letters of famous Elizabethan courtier] down at the Huntington... if only the department would give me a travel stipend I could be in California all summer." Followed by a sigh of unachieved content and a gaze off into the distance.

  4. Thanks guys! I'm definately planning on going back soon. I'm glad that you enjoyed this post and I hope you get a chance to visit yourselves sometime! @Brian, I'm not surprised this gem is appreciated by the great people you work with!