Gateway to the Desert Garden

Posted on Tue., Aug. 15, 2023 by Sandy Masuo
Expand image Workers directing the placement of a large boulder, held by a crane.

John Trager (third from right) and Seth Baker (second from right) direct the placement of a boulder in a redesigned area of the Desert Garden. | Photo by Aric Allen.

Henry E. Huntington’s first experience with a cactus was not auspicious. While serving as a field supervisor for the Southern Pacific Railroad, he backed into a prickly pear plant (Opuntia) and learned firsthand how it got its common name. So, in 1907, when his superintendent of grounds, William Hertrich, suggested planting a cactus garden on the rocky slope that bordered the drive leading to his newly planned residence, he was less than enthusiastic. In Hertrich’s 1949 memoir, he wrote: “Mr. Huntington evidenced complete surprise and questioned why I thought anyone could possibly be interested in such a garden, admitting that he himself thoroughly disliked all types of cacti.”

Expand image A black-and-white photo of the Desert Garden, with a large home on a hill in the distance.

In this photo (ca. 1910), the Huntingtons’ residence (now the Huntington Art Gallery) is visible beyond the newly planted Desert Garden. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Fortunately, Huntington had a change of heart and agreed to a trial planting of some 300 cactus specimens on a half-acre section of the hillside. As the collection grew, it became renowned for its range and depth. More than a century later, it is one of the world’s premier collections of succulent plants, including cacti, covering more than 10 acres and comprising more than 5,000 arid-adapted plants. The Desert Garden Entrance Project, nearing completion, will make it possible to showcase more of this collection and spotlight the significance of these plants. The first phase of the project was completed last month. The new entrance pathway opened at the end of July, but planting will be an ongoing process.

Expand image People walking on a concrete path surrounded by trees and rock landscapes.

The enhanced entrance to the Desert Garden presents a more prominent welcome to visitors. | Photo by Linnea Stephan.

“Because the property was a private estate, the Desert Garden never had a formal entrance,” explained Seth Baker, the gardens principal designer at The Huntington. “One of the goals of the project was to make a proper entrance that highlights this garden. Another objective was to expand access, reducing the steep slope to make it easier for guests and staff to navigate it.” When the project is complete, an additional half-acre of the upper portion of the Desert Garden will be open for visitors to explore, and 1,300 feet of fully accessible pathways will make it possible for everyone to enjoy the garden, helping to fulfill The Huntington’s commitment to improved access for all visitors.

Expand image A worker uses a wheelbarrow to add dirt next to a newly landscaped walking path.

Wider, smoother pathways and gentler slopes make the Desert Garden more easily accessible. | Photo by Linnea Stephan.

Entering its second century, the Desert Garden has grown in relevance as the collection’s unique biodiversity has become more apparent and scientists have learned more about threats to deserts and dryland habitats around the world. Plants from these areas are particularly vulnerable to extinction. Many are endemic to tiny regions or have evolved in unusual or extreme conditions—and sometimes both. The threats they face include habitat loss because of climate change and human activity, as well as the introduction of pests and invasive species. In addition to the fact that their naturally occurring populations are often small, many succulents and other desert plants are increasing in popularity with collectors, which has sparked a dramatic uptick in poaching from the wild. Though nursery-grown specimens can take some of the pressure off wild populations, many species remain difficult to sustain in cultivation and are challenging to propagate.

Expand image Desert plants sit in rows under a mesh fabric-covered nursery.

Plants from the Desert Garden Conservatory found temporary housing in the nursery while renovations continued. | Photo by John Trager.

In the second phase of the project, the renovated Desert Garden Conservatory will house approximately 2,000 plants that are sensitive to Southern California’s variable temperatures. New retractable siding will make it possible to view the plants from outside, revealing many treasures that few people have been able to see over the years. A new patio area and adjacent shade structure will provide a setting for presentations and other education and outreach activities, making the conservatory an interpretive hub for the garden.

Expand image Workers and materials can be seen through the windows of a large conservatory under construction.

The expanded Desert Garden Conservatory will offer better growing conditions and make it possible to share more of the collections with guests. | Photo by John Trager.

“The specimens in the Desert Garden Conservatory represent all the major groups of succulents and some rarities,” said John Trager, the Bernie and Miyako Storch Curator of the Desert Garden and Collections. “A shade house to the north will display The Huntington’s epiphytic cactus collection, “which has largely been behind the scenes, as well as some other plants that really want better ventilation than they would get in the conservatory.”

Even though succulents and cacti are adapted to arid habitats, some are from regions that, like Southern California, receive rain in the winter. However, most succulents are summer growers that are native to regions where rain falls in the warm season, so it is important to protect some of the more sensitive species at The Huntington from winter rains when they are dormant.

Expand image A gardener prepares potted plants to be placed in a new landscape.

This renovation at the north end of the Desert Garden presents an opportunity to plant some specimens that have been growing in the nursery, preparing for their day in the sunshine. | Photo by Linnea Stephan.

“Conservation is a major theme because the desert collections are among the most diverse botanical collections we have, and they harbor tremendous research potential,” Trager said. “They also present fascinating adaptations and design possibilities, which we display in abundance outside the conservatory.”

With the first phase completed and the Desert Garden Conservatory renovations progressing, work on the third and final phase of the project will continue through spring 2024. Plans include a wooden footbridge built over a wash and a gently graded walkway that will connect a Desert Garden path to the existing Palm Garden path. A small naturalistic amphitheater will provide space for classes, garden talks, and group learning activities, as well as an informal place for school groups or families to rest in the shade of native oaks. These new facilities and interpretive spaces will support the conservation of some of the world’s most fascinating and threatened plants while providing ample opportunities for education and engagement.

Expand image An artist rendering of a walking bridge in a rocky, succulent-filled landscape.

Work on the final phase of the Desert Garden renovation will continue into 2024. The completed project will include a wooden footbridge built over a granite wash and additional features to enhance accessibility and educational programming.

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

40th Annual Succulent Plants Symposium

Fri., Sept. 1 | 9 a.m.–5 p.m.

The Huntington presents the 40th Annual Succulent Plants Symposium, featuring notable experts from around the world who will discuss agave conservation, climate change impacts on cacti, and more. The event will include a silent auction and succulent plants for sale.