100 Years and Growing
The Desert Garden Celebrates its Centennial
One Sunday afternoon in 1907, Henry Huntington and his young superintendent, William Hertrich, sat deep in conversation in the shade of a sycamore tree overlooking a barren slope. Situated on the eastern edge of the estate, the hillside of poor, gravelly soil didn’t seem well suited to ornamental plantings, but it certainly needed improvement. It bordered the main drive leading up to Huntington’s planned new residence. Something dramatic was called for.
“What about a cactus garden?” Hertrich suggested.
“I soon realized the error I had made in mentioning the term ‘cactus garden’ to Mr. Huntington,” Hertrich later recalled. “His first reaction was one of amazement. As a railroad official, he had frequently passed through the American deserts and had had a bitter personal encounter with a very spiny variety of opuntia while watching a grading crew along the Southern Pacific line.”
Happily for generations of visitors, botanists, and horticulturists, Mr. Huntington overcame that painful memory and agreed to a trial planting of around 300 specimens on a half-acre piece of hillside. Before long, competition from other wealthy estate owners triggered Huntington’s collecting instincts. Expeditions were mounted to the southwestern United States and Mexico in search of unusual plants - towering saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea), graceful agaves, bristling hedgehog cacti (Echinocereus), barrel cacti (Ferocactus) and other desert denizens. As the garden grew, reaching roughly its current 11-acre size by the 1920s, so did the breadth of the collection, with rarities being imported from as far away as South America, Madagascar, and South Africa. Some of those early plantings can still be seen in the garden today.
If Huntington and Hertrich were to return to that shady sycamore tree this year as the Desert Garden marks its 100th anniversary, no doubt they would be pleased to see their vision so magnificently realized. Today, this otherworldly Eden displays more than 50,000 beautiful plants representing approximately 4,000 species of cacti and succulents.
The garden has undergone many improvements over the years, most recently the renovation of a “heritage walk” in the lower garden where some of the oldest plant acquisitions can be found.