The desert garden features more than 2,000 species of succulents and desert plants in sixty landscaped beds. Plants are labeled with their scientific name and geographical range. 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 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, that 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 terrestrial 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 Aloe 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
Closed for renovation
The Desert Garden Improvement Project will open new areas of the upper Desert Garden showcasing more of this world-renowned collection with the construction of new pathways, a renovated Desert Conservatory with all new infrastructure, and new opportunities for learning and enjoyment.
New and updated paths will provide access to more than half an acre of gardens to the public. The new paths will complete the loop trail along the northern edge of the property and will also complete a service road reducing vehicle traffic on public and pedestrian pathways.
Renovations to the Desert Garden conservatory including all new infrastructure, retractable sides, and a shade structure will provide improved public access and viewing of the collections.
The project also includes the repopulation of the iconic aloe forest at the north end of the Desert Garden.
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 unrivaled 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.
Many desert columnar plants belong to the S. American cactus 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 succulent bedding plants are Crassulaceae.
The columnar cactus-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 and produces colorful bracts throughout the year.
The near legendary boojum trees (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.