The Huntington: No Ordinary Botanical Garden

Did you know in any given year that more people in the United States visit gardens than Las Vegas and Disney World combined? It's true and it's called Garden Tourism, the highest revenue of any tourism activity in America. Industry aside, I have visited my share of botanical gardens almost everywhere I have traveled and loved them all no matter the season. A recent visit to the Desert Garden at The Huntington in San Marino, California reinterprets the traditional viewing of captive plants along a guided walkway experience. Instead, visitors are transported to an off-world colony where succulents and cacti rule an avant-garde landscape.

The Huntington Desert Garden, The Botanical Journey, Botanical Garden, Huntington Gardens, Cactus, Cacti

The Huntington gardens encompass 120 acres with 12 distinct botanical collections containing over 15,000 plant varieties. This grand estate requires more than a day's visit. If, however, you only have a day, I highly recommend the Desert Garden Heritage Walk. Nearly 100 years old, this accumulation of cacti and succulents is one of the oldest and largest in the world. And in my experience one of the most bizarre. 

Aloe Species in bloom, The Huntington, Desert Garden, LA County, Succulents, The Botanical Journey

A miniature succulent forest of blooming Aloe species. Aloes or the Aloaceae family originates from Southern Africa, Arabia, and Madagascar. The assemblage is one of the largest collections outside of Africa.

Succulents vs Cacti

Any plant that stores water in a stem, leaf, or root is technically a succulent. The word is derived from the Latin "succos," meaning juicy.  The cactus family, Cactaceae, is just one of many groups called succulents. We often refer to succulents as aloes, agaves, echeverias, and euphorbias. However, some geraniums and orchids are also succulents, as well as, plumeria plants and all cacti. While cacti are indigenous to North America, succulents are found across the globe in almost every habitat and especially in harsh climates due to the plant's ability to store water for survival. Beyond the isolated region of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico where all cacti originate, the unique characteristic defining a cactus from all other desert plants and succulents is the areole or a small open bump on the stem of a cactus from which spines, flowers, and branches emerge.

Areole, Cactus spine, Echinocereus,

The areoles are the distinct white areas from which these clusters of spines arise, a unique feature of cactus. 

 Desert Garden of The Huntington, The Botanical Journey

A spectacular mixture of cactus, palms, and succulents at The Huntington Estate.

More than 2000 species of succulents and cactus are featured in the Desert Garden. The extraordinary assemblage of plants along with an outstanding collection of art and rare books are the continuation of the early twentieth-century railroad and real estate businessman Henry Edwards Huntington. In 1903, Mr. Huntington purchased the property 12 miles northeast of Los Angeles as a working ranch including citrus groves, fruit and nut orchards, various crops, and farm animals. Together with his superintendent, William Hertrich, they developed a botanical collection of local and exotic species from around the world. Today, the botanical gardens are maintained by a staff of 40 gardeners and more than 100 volunteers. 

Palm Collection at the Huntington, Huntington Gardens, The Botanical Journey, Palms

Henry Huntington and his ranch superintendent, William Hertrich, amassed many of the plant species on display in the early 20th century including the Palm Collection in the photograph above. My second favorite garden on the property.

The Huntington is open daily except for Tuesdays and major holidays. To learn more about upcoming events, exhibitions, seasonal blooms, directions, and pricing visit

*We recognize that The Huntington has an astonishing world-class art and rare book collection and are reason alone to visit. The intention of this post is to highlight the spectacular and unconventional Desert Garden Heritage Walk. 


Garden Tourism is an informative guide by Richard W. Benfield

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