Desert Garden at the Huntington Library

Some time ago I wrote a post about why I don’t plant succulents in my own garden. Ever since then, I have felt the presence of an invisible host waiting to pounce and shout, “Aha! Now you admit the error of your ways!”

Approaching the Huntinton Library's Desert Garden.
Approaching the Huntinton Library’s Desert Garden.

We saw the Desert Garden at the Huntington Library on the Monday before Christmas. This garden is fun, exciting, fascinating, and visually powerful. But did it make me change my mind? Read on to find out.

Once the estate of a California plutocrat, the Huntington Library is now a privately run institution featuring extensive gardens, art displays, and libraries, all open to the public. The Desert Garden, covering 12 acres, was the inspiration of William Hertrich, the estate’s chief gardener in the earlier part of the 20th Century.

Desert Garden at the Huntington Library
Smooth and spiky: Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and Agave parryi. I know I posted this picture earlier, but I had to put it up a second time.
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The cacti present an intriguing mix of rounded and columnar shapes.

During our visit there two qualities to this garden that really stood out. The first was the complementary and contrasting shapes and textures of the plants.

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The other was the way the spines (which are considered leaves by botanists, if you want to get technical) caught the light.

Anybody know the name of this tree?
Anybody know the name of this tree?
Flowering Aloe behind a stand of Aeonium.
Flowering Aloe behind a stand of Aeonium.

Flowers are a relatively minor aspect of this garden, but there were a few that caught our admiration. They stand out that much more since they are relatively scarce.

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Sometimes the colors of the cacti themselves could be arresting.

The way these flowers are stuck on the stem makes me think of Mr. Potato Head.
The way these flowers are stuck on the stem makes me think of Mr. Potato Head.
These guys look like they could be new Muppet characters.
These guys look like they could be new Muppet characters.

On the other hand, some of the cactus flowers struck me as awkward or even comical.

Did you know there were cacti that should climb?
Did you know there were cacti that could climb?
Here's another one.
Here’s another one.

There were a number of plants that seemed particularly strange.

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The plants in this garden were collected from all over the world. However, they were grouped by aesthetic criteria only, not geographically. Even so, I have to say the garden was lively with birds, though we didn’t get any pictures.

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This will give you some idea of scale (of me versus Danny and David, that is).

Farewell to the Desert Garden.
Farewell to the Desert Garden.

So do I recant my succulent heresy? Not really. I am thrilled to have visited the Huntington’s Desert Garden, it is a wonderful place, and yet I could never forget its essential strangeness. Strange to me, in any case. I have visited great gardens such as Giverny and Great Dixter and thought: if only this were home. Or at least, if only I could make my home more like this. I did not have that reaction to the Desert Garden, as marvelous as it is.

61 Comments on “Desert Garden at the Huntington Library

  1. Jason I actually love desert succulents and seeing them in the desert or in a desert garden. Nt in my garden except one native cactus. Great pictures of this very unique garden.

  2. I agree with your reaction. The desert garden is exotic, gorgeous, and alien to me in many ways. But I am a tactile gardener; I am always touching my plants, which could be a dangerous habit with these plants! I can see one advantage: I doubt deer or rabbits would eat this garden!

  3. I really love the photo of the Golden Barrel Cactus and Agave parryi, glad you posted it again as I missed it first time around. I agree with your thoughts too. Nice to see you with your boys all enjoying this garden.

  4. I do agree with you, even though I love cacti they are very alien, and despite being stunningly beautiful I prefer a garden filled with flowers, bees and butterflies. I had no idea that cacti could climb….wow. I did enjoy looking at these pics and would have loved to have visited there.xxx

    • Actually I do think there are a lot of pollinators in this garden – just not necessarily the ones that you would find in my own.

  5. I love seeing all these succulents although I wouln’ t plant them in the garden even if could. I love then in pots though. The climbing cactus looks like the night flowering Cereus: Selenicerus grandiflorus. The flowers ‘Queen of the Night’ smell divine. I didn’ t know that it was a climber but that would explain why it keeps putting out aerial roots and flopping all over the place. It wants to climb.

  6. I am with you on this one! Though it is fascinating to learn about a variety of plants I know nothing about they seem so cold and foreign to me. I enjoyed seeing their scale in that shot with your boys and I liked the strong contrast of their shapes. A very pretty and interesting garden none the less! Happy week to you Jason!

  7. The Huntington is a great garden to visit, but I must admit that part of the garden doesn’t appeal to me. Perhaps it is from too many years of taking care of my mother’s cacti and spending an hour afterwards pulling the tiny thorns out of my fingers with tweezers. One can appreciate the plants without wanting them as a part of daily life 🙂

    • What part of the Huntington do you like best? I spent some time in the rose, Japanese, and Chinese gardens, but was disappointed we didn’t spend any time in the jungle or sub-tropical gardens.

  8. I’ve never warmed up to desert gardens, either. They’re beautiful but they feel so alien. I am a cottage gardener to the core.

  9. Love the photos. 🙂 It certainly is an intriguing collection of plants. But understand why you are not overwhelmed. I think we learn to love the plants we can grow in our own gardens…. if I lived in a hot and dry climate I would probably go into raptures about those climbing cacti!

  10. I took 2 trips to Scottsdale last year–in January and in August–and was struck by the eerie beauty of the Southwest desert landscape. I would describe it as as austere and almost otherworldly. Being from the Midwest where there are 4 lengthy and distinct seasons, I thoroughly enjoyed the departure of my traditional landscape and am grateful for t he immense variety we enjoy through the seasons.

  11. It’s funny. I visited there last year but have no recollection of the desert garden. Of course the place is huge, but we started at the Japanese garden. Did you get to see the camellias?

    • I saw a few camelias, not as many as I had wished. There were some at the Huntington. I had wanted to go to Descanso too but there wasn’t time.

  12. I enjoy seeing photos of tulips and roses and the like because they are what I grew up with in the Midwest. I enjoy seeing the photos of the Desert Garden because it is not what I grew up with.

  13. Great pictures! Personally, I like spiky succulents in pots, and in the garden only the sort of succulents that don’t try and shred or impale me when I go near them 🙂 Your mystery tree is Aloe barberae, the Tree Aloe from subtropical S. Africa

  14. “Aha!” Glad you took the kool-aid.

    Though, the rest of us that get any real winter, have less choices, but still stunning. And we can always take in the tenderer ones. The 2nd to last shot is perfect with that sun angle on those forms…huge forms.

  15. I feel much as you do about cactus and succulents Jason, we only differ in that when that is the only thing that will grow, incan admire them. Their biggest problem is that they don’t mix well with other types of plants.

  16. I guess a lot of your readers have the climate to grow cacti outside. Here in York UK my garden visitors are amazed to see any at all. I do however have six different genuinely hardy cacti ( And I don’t mean other succulents). In addition I have a dozen different ones which over winter in my unheated greenhouse and are planted out March to December!

    • There is at least one native cactus that grows in the American Midwest, an Opuntia. However, I have enough thorns with the roses and raspberries.

  17. I feel much the same…I can appreciate them and enjoy them in other people’s gardens…but they don’t speak to me or capture my imagination, unfortunately. I do very much like Sedums of all sorts…but that’s about as far as it goes, I’m afraid 🙂

  18. My husband feels the same as you. After a visit to Arizona one year and two subsequent visits to Santa Fe, I was intrigued with the landscape but he couldn’t wit to get back to New England. However when you are faced with tough climates, I think those cacti and succulents are quite appealing.

    • Oh, I think they are quite beautiful – but at the same time – alien. But if I lived in that climate I would have a different view.

  19. I loved visiting Huntington’s Desert Garden but I agree with you – nice place to visit but wouldn’t want to live there. I felt like I was walking along the bottom of a strange sea bed which is ironic considering it’s a desert garden. The visit was thrilling but I want calm, cool comfort in my own garden.

  20. I absolutely adore this garden, but not the climate that supports it. Lived there for a time and couldn’t get back to the cool, damp Pacific Northwest lushness fast enough.

    • My car door was frozen shut this morning and it was exactly 1 degree (F). That California climate doesn’t look so bad at the moment.

  21. I fell in love with succulents when I was in California but that’s where they belong, isn’t it? Beautiful pictures. Especially interested to see the aloe flowering since that is the habitat for my next help-with-banding-hummingbirds trip to Costa Rica.

  22. Well, this style doesn’t really fit in a Wisconsin (or Illinois?) garden. But it’s stunning in its own place. For a long time, I felt the same way about grasses, but as I’m getting older I’m more curious and appreciative of succulents, grasses, and other plants I didn’t “get” before. Sounds like you’re moving in that direction, too. Not so much to incorporate it into your own garden as to appreciate it when you see it in the right setting. Thanks for sharing these highlights of your trip.

  23. Your impression of the Desert Garden was so interesting–this is my climate, and so for me it is not at all alien. I have the same reaction to Chicagoland–rain in the summertime is still beyond my comprehension–herbaceous perennials that die to the ground for winter–we just don’t have that here–and the dampness and lush conifers of the Pacific Northwest is no less amazing. I must just say that the Desert Garden is actually filled with flowers almost year round–the Aloes in late fall and winter, many cacti and Yucca in spring, and certain cacti and other Aloes bloom quite a lot in summer-it is only late summer and early fall that there is less blooming.

    Here’s to variety in climate. It is certainly what makes garden blogging so fun, to see other exotic climates the world over.

  24. Well done Judy for some excellent photos! I love the contrast of the plants – they have done a fab job of making the best use of their contrasting forms at this garden. I enjoyed hb’s comment above too and I agree wholeheartedly with their last comment – it is fascinating to see what is growing in other climates around our planet. Happy new year!

  25. Jason, the cactus are so big and tall! I could only see them in Conservatory and watching them on you post I was surprised. Thank you for sharing!

  26. Well I doubt I need to tell you how I feel about this garden (but I will anyway, haha), I LOVE it and would move in and call it my own in a heartbeat. Oh that I should be so lucky. Having visited twice at other times of the year I was blown away by the number of flowers (Aloes, primarily) blooming this time. And (as you pointed out) there were a ton of pollinators and birds buzzing around. I sat down a few times to just soak up the smells and the noise of all the activity around me.

    I am confused when people describe this garden (or any like it) as cold. How is it cold? Different yes, but cold? Oh and Judy…you got some great shots!

    • I guess my reference point on the flowers is the sort of cottage garden that has just masses of bloom. I would have spent more time here but I had to keep my travel companions from getting restless – would have loved to spend some time on one of the benches. I do feel that some individual succulents have a “cold” vibe – but I will agree that this could not be said for the Desert Garden as a whole.

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