A Celebration of Succulents
The Huntington Desert Garden is one of the largest and oldest assemblages of cacti and other succulents in the world. Nearly 100 years old, it has grown from a small area on the Raymond fault scarp when in 1907-1908 William Hertrich brought in plants from local nurseries, private residences, public parks, and from collection trips to the Southwest and Mexican deserts. Today the two dozen families of succulents and other arid adapted plants have developed into a 10-acre garden display, the Huntington’s most important conservation collection, a most important mission and challenge.
The desert garden features more than 5,000 species of succulents and desert plants in sixty landscaped beds. Many plants are labeled with their name and country of origin. Look closely to discover the different ways succulents have adapted to cope with drought and defend themselves against enemies. Most retain water in their leaves, stems, or roots. Many protect themselves with sharp spines or thorns, and some have waxy or woolly protective coverings to reflect sunlight and decrease water loss.
It is said that when the first English botanist saw the Fouquieria columnaris, he thought it resembled the fantasy creature from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark and dubbed it “Boojum.” After a rain this Baja California native sprouts small leaves, which are soon lost if the weather turns dry.
The ribs of the golden barrel cactus resemble an accordion, expanding and contracting as the plant stores and uses water. Many of the golden barrels you see here were planted from seed before 1915 and now weigh several hundred pounds.
Specimens of Yucca filifera dominate the landscape of the lower portion of the garden, with some reaching a height of sixty feet. In the early 1900s these yuccas surrounded a reservoir that was subsequently drained and filled. You’ll also see here two rare bromeliads from Chile, Puya alpestris and P. chilensis. In spring they burst into bloom with stunning flowers, the former blue-green and the latter chartreuse.
Weighing in at twenty tons is Cereus xanthocarpus. This tree-like cactus is the largest on the grounds; it was a mature specimen when planted in 1905. About 200 of the world’s 300 species of aloes reside in the upper garden. Most are from southern Africa. Aloe bainesii, which can grow fifty feet high, is the tallest. Aloes and agaves are rosette-shaped succulents similar in appearance. Aloe vera is known for its healing qualities, although not all aloes have the same medicinal properties.
At first glance euphorbias and cacti look alike. How do you tell one from the other? Cactus flowers are large and showy; the blooms of euphorbias are small and inconspicuous. Cacti are from the Americas, while succulent euphorbias are mostly Old World plants from Africa.
Desert Garden Conservatory
Melon thistles, living stones, pincushions
At the upper end of the desert garden, a greenhouse is home to some 3,000 vulnerable succulents that might not survive if they were to get too much water or were exposed to freezing temperatures. And some are just too small and fragile to compete with the more vigorous plants in the outdoor garden. Some of the plants, although large, are still delicate, such as the huge specimen of Astrophytum ornatum.
Look for interpretive signs that explain what succulent means (juicy; it refers to plants with thick leaves, stems, or roots that store water); what a melon thistle is (its scientific name is Melocactus; it was the first cactus introduced to Europe); and what plant can live for a thousand years but only grows two leaves (Welwitschia from Namibia). See if you can tell the difference between the male and female welwitschias.
The oldest plant in the conservatory may be Pachypodium horombense, which was collected in Madagascar in 1928. Most of the other plants are less than fifteen years old because new ones are started from cuttings of new growth.
Other plants to look for include cacti that live on other plants (epiphytes) and grow best in hanging baskets; living stones (Lithops) in the ice plant family, which in their native habitat grow among rocks or soil the same color as their leaves; and variegated succulents, distinguished by yellow streaks in their green leaves. The yellow streaks indicate a lack of chlorophyll, essential for plant growth. As a result, these plants are slower growing, but their sometimes exquisite beauty makes them in great demand by collectors. Visitors are also usually fascinated by the large collection of Mammillarias, or pincushion cactus, to the left inside the entrance.
The Desert Garden Collections
The most significant collections are agave and related genera (Agavaceae), aloe (Aloaceae), terrestrial bromeliads (Bromeliaceae), cacti (Cactaceae), echeveria, crassula, sedum and related genera (Crassulaceae), euphorbia (Euphorbiaceae), and fouquieria (Fouquieriaceae).
Beaucarnea, Bottle Palms, unlikely members of the agave family, are some of the oldest specimens in cultivation, and among the earliest plantings in the Desert Garden. Many species of agave terminate their life cycle by generating a branched inflorescence to 30 feet. The Desert Garden agave and yucca collections, along with the cacti, are among the Huntington’s most significant research collections.
Aloes (Aloaceae) constitute one of the largest collections outside Africa. A. arborescens on the hill above the new historic section has an unrivalled winter display of fiery red flower stalks.
Puyas are terrestrial bromeliads (Bromeliaceae) that put on a spectacular floral display in April/early May. Other rarely seen species are located in the new heritage section.
Most desert columnar plants belong to the S. American genus Cereus. They form the structure of much of the Desert Garden landscape, producing flowers in late summer and colorful fruit in September/October. C. xanthocarpus in the lower garden is approximately 125 years old.
The most spectacular cactus displays are the 500 bright yellow spined spring flowering Golden Barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii), the largest being more than 85 years old.
The crassula family consists of unarmed leaf succulents found mostly in Mexico and Africa. Cool autumn brings out pastel leaf colors in aeonium, echeveria, kalanchoe, pachyphytum, and sedum. Most bedding plants are Crassulaceae.
The cereus-like plants in the African section of the upper garden, are succulent spurges (Euphorbia) and have caustic milky latex. The species most represented in the garden are native to South Africa and eastern Africa. Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia milii) is a leafy spiny native to Madagascar but produces colorful bracts throughout the year.
The near legendary boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris) in the Baja Bed, native to Baja California, are rare oddities in Fouquieriaceae. The better know ocotillo (F. splendens) is in the California bed. The central garden is landscaped with numerous fouquierias from Mexico with bright red blossoms most of the year.