More Than Meets the Eye: Plant Conservation at The Huntington

Posted on Tue., Dec. 19, 2023 by Sandy Masuo
A Corpse Flower inflorescence viewed at night from below and lit from behind.

The Amorphophallus titanum, or Corpse Flower, is a popular attraction at many botanical gardens, including The Huntington. In its native Indonesian habitat, the population is declining due to habitat loss and degradation. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

In the 120 years since Henry E. Huntington built his estate, including its iconic gardens, the world has changed dramatically. Between 1903 and today, the Earth’s human population has quintupled, and the number of people living in California has expanded from over 1.5 million to more than 39 million. Human activity has triggered environmental changes that are reducing biological diversity around the globe, including the loss of hundreds of plant species in the wild. Though protecting endangered species was not Huntington’s impetus for creating his gardens, his passion for acquiring rare and unusual plants resulted in collections that now play a key role in global plant conservation efforts.

Two images of the a large tree in a garden in black and white (left) and in color.

A Montezuma Cypress tree in the Rose Garden in 1968 (left) still stands today. In 1912, William Hertrich collected Montezuma Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) seeds from Mexico City’s historic Chapultepec Park. The 13 mature Montezuma Cypress trees on The Huntington’s grounds grew from those seeds. Today, the Mexican government has prioritized the national tree’s conservation because of its biocultural value and increased mortality rate. Researchers are backing up this species with multiple genetic clones, and The Huntington’s trees offer an invaluable resource for this endeavor. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Huntington and his first superintendent of grounds, William Hertrich, were curious to discover how many plants from other parts of the world could be grown in California’s Mediterranean climate, and with ample resources to support this quest, they acquired a botanical trove. Today, the process of importing and exporting plants is highly regulated to protect against the transmission of pests and plant diseases, as well as to prevent the theft of plants in the wild. But during Huntington and Hertrich’s time, plants were acquired liberally from a range of places around the world. Thus, their botanical garden was born, and it now it serves as a safe haven for plants that are threatened and endangered in their native habitats.

In fact, several groups of plants that have been signature elements of the public-facing gardens since Huntington’s day are now the focus of intense conservation interest. Twenty-five core collections—which include cycads, succulents (including cacti), aroids, magnolias, and orchids—are central to The Huntington’s Ark Conservation Program, in which plants are both protected and, to the extent possible, propagated. Additionally, the Ark program encompasses an array of research and conservation initiatives that take place behind the scenes.

View of the cycads near the entrance of the Huntington mansion.

Sago Palms (Cycas revoluta) on the Huntington grounds in the 1930s. Cycads have been prominent in the Huntington landscape since the Botanical Gardens began. Though Sago Palms, a species of cycad, are not threatened in the wild, cycads as a group are the most endangered plants in the world. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Established in the 1990s and initially focused on the desert collections, the Ark program has expanded to include all rare, endangered, or uncommonly cultivated species in The Huntington’s living collections. It comprises five main strategies for protecting plant biodiversity: preservation, research, education, networking, and distribution.

A key Huntington goal is to share resources and expertise with diverse communities. Public programming, interpretive signage, and exhibitions inspire guests to learn more about plants that capture their interest in the gardens and conservatories. Behind the scenes, Huntington staff routinely hosts professional development training sessions and publishes protocols for laboratory techniques that support plant conservation efforts at facilities around the world.

A group of people gathered in a lab.

Through professional development opportunities, The Huntington shares resources and expertise with other facilities, thus expanding conservation capacity. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Through cryopreservation, micropropagation (also known as tissue culture), and long-term storage of seeds, Botanical staff preserves living tissues from certain species—especially those considered at risk. The Huntington also keeps a botanical library—an herbarium—containing more than 10,000 dried, cataloged plant specimens, as well as a tissue bank that provides materials for molecular studies. Data about where and when individual samples were collected are essential in studying how plant populations have changed over time.

Two images of preserved plant materials, including leaves and flowers of different species.

Many botanical gardens maintain herbarium collections in addition to their living collections. Each carefully preserved record contains detailed information about the sample. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

As with accredited zoos, where endangered animals are protected and cared for as their species face extinction in the wild, botanical gardens safeguard rare and threatened plant species by growing them in cultivation. But this isn’t always easy. Not all plants adapt well to domestic settings, and plant reproduction can be complicated. Cycads, for example, are dioecious, which means each plant produces either pollen or ovules (egg cells). As a result, both a male and a female plant are required in order to obtain fertile seeds. Other plants require particular pollinators or pollination procedures, and some produce seeds that need specific conditions in order to germinate. When propagation efforts are successful, maintaining genetic diversity is vital, so botanical staff network with other institutions to exchange pollen, seeds, or plants.

Two people stand in a plant nursery, looking at a potted plant.

Plant sales provide a way for the public to pursue an interest in plants while supporting The Huntington’s botanical programs. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Botanical gardens can share their successes with the public in a very direct way. Many plant species and cultivars in The Huntington’s gardens are available through seasonal plant sales. Since 1989, The Huntington has offered succulents of interest for purchase through the International Succulent Introductions program, which aims to propagate and distribute new or rare species to collectors, nurseries, and institutions. (The Huntington does not sell field-collected plants, and its seedlings, grafts, and rooted cuttings are produced under nursery conditions without detriment to wild populations.) In this way, a diversity of plant enthusiasts—ranging from colleagues at other botanical gardens to nursery professionals and home gardeners—can all participate in preserving populations of these plants outside of their wild habitat.

Ginkgo trees with yellow leaves in the Japanese Garden.

Ginkgo biloba has existed largely unchanged for roughly 200 million years. Today, this distinctive tree is common in domestic landscapes, thanks to commercial propagation, although wild populations are declining, primarily because of deforestation. Photo by Lisa Blackburn. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Indeed, some of the world’s most endangered plants in the wild are common in commercial cultivation. Examples include the Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba), Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco), Cardboard Palm (Zamia furfuracea), and Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)—all prominent in Huntington landscapes and in gardens throughout Southern California. Their popularity in domestic settings means that these species are less at risk of absolute extinction, but their familiarity can make it difficult for people to recognize the plants’ precarious existence in their native habitats. Commercial production also masks a different problem: lack of genetic diversity. Popular plants in the nursery trade have often been cloned in vast numbers from just a few wild individuals.

Two images of orchids in bloom.

Two orchids of conservation interest currently in The Huntington’s collections: Epidendrum ilense (left) is endemic to Ecuador but believed to be extinct in the wild due to deforestation. Mexipedium xerophyticum is endemic to Oaxaca, Mexico, but believed to be extinct in the wild due to a wildfire that burned through its habitat. Photos by Brandon Tam. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Botanical gardens strive to preserve genetic diversity through careful propagation practices and work to reduce the poaching of plants from the wild by providing legal, affordable alternatives for sale. But protecting habitat around the world remains vital not only for plants (including many that have yet to be discovered), but also for all the organisms that depend on them. Through partnerships with such organizations as the Center for Plant Conservation and Botanic Gardens Conservation International, The Huntington shares knowledge and resources that directly support the study of threatened plants in the wild.

The Huntington’s collections—whether in the Library, the art galleries, or the gardens—gain new relevance as each generation finds fresh meaning in them. Careful stewardship ensures that The Huntington’s living botanical legacy will continue to support conservation efforts and inspire people to connect with and care about the natural world.

Golden Barrel Cactus in the Desert Garden during golden hour.

The Huntington’s collections include scientifically significant specimens that were collected from the wild long before this practice was restricted. Some of the first Golden Barrel Cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) obtained by William Hertrich, the first superintendent of grounds at The Huntington, likely originated in what was, until recently, the only known wild population. The 4-square-mile region in central Mexico where the cacti were found more than a century ago was demolished in 1994 during the construction of a dam. Photo by Martha Benedict. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Sandy Masuo is the senior writer in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.