Evening photo shoot at The Huntington Gardens: GWA Pasadena

The Huntington gardens near Los Angeles have, for years, been on my wish list of botanical gardens to visit. So I was thrilled to see an afternoon visit and after-hours photoshoot offered on the itinerary of the Garden Writers Association symposium on September 20.

Unfortunately, it was surface-of-the-sun hot that day, 103 F (39.4 C). By my mid-afternoon arrival, I realized, to my dismay, that I was completely uninterested in touring the much-anticipated Huntington under the glare of an unforgiving Death Star. Chagrined, I hid out in the gift shop for an hour. Lest you think this a travesty, I assure you that the Huntington’s is the most incredible garden gift shop I’ve ever been in. How I wish I’d taken photos to show you. But I simply browsed in A/C-contented bliss.

As the sun dipped toward the horizon, however, I realized that I needed to suck it up and get out there. I mean, this was the Huntington! And so as the early-bird GWAers were straggling back, sweat-stained and flushed, to the gift shop and an after-hours bar (courtesy of the good folks at the Huntington), I finally ventured forth, prepared to melt for the beauty of the gardens.

And beautiful they are. As described by GWA, the Huntington was “[o]riginally the private estate of railroad magnate Henry Huntington (1850-1927), with a grand Beaux Arts mansion as its centerpiece….[T]he research and cultural institution houses world-class collections, including Gainsborough’s famous portrait of The Blue Boy, a Gutenberg Bible, and a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Surrounding the estate are 120 acres of breathtaking grounds that showcase more than 15,000 different kinds of plants in a dozen specialized gardens.”

I did not see any of the indoor masterpieces. The garden was my sole focus. As it closed to regular visitors at 4:30 pm, those of us with GWA badges were allowed to stay on until 7 pm, giving the photographers among us a chance to shoot the garden in the kinder light of late afternoon and early evening.

Palm and Desert Gardens

I headed straight for the famous Desert Garden, figuring the afternoon light would be good filtering through spiny plants, and passing through the dramatic Palm Garden along the way.

The sun was still intense when I reached the Desert Garden, but as I’d hoped, it was incandescing the cactus.

As with the Lotusland cactus garden, it was like visiting a strange planet. At 10 acres and with 2,000 species of succulents and cactus, the Desert Garden is worthy of hours of poking around (pun intended). But amid the rocky beds and asphalt paving, the heat was like standing next to an open oven, and I ended up spending only about 45 minutes here.

Still, I saw many beautiful plants, like these blue echeverias creeping among black lava rock.

And aeoniums so black they looked scorched by the heat.

Otherworldly tree aloe

And barrel cactus in brilliant flower

High in this floss silk tree’s branches, a flock of green parrots chattered amiably.

Nearby, golden barrel cactus clustered in extravagant masses.

I’d never seen so many barrels, not even at Desert Botanical Garden.

I didn’t even know they grew this way, clustered one upon another in great, spiny mounds.

They littered the path edges like beach balls after a pool party, and each wore a golden halo in the afternoon light.

Lily Ponds

Seeking shade, I happened next upon the Lily Ponds garden. I could hardly imagine a more different experience from the radiating heat and dynamic plant arrangements in the Desert Garden.

Here, the mood was serene, green, and cool, thanks to a tranquil pond and stands of rustling bamboo.

I rested there a while before heading into the sun again, crossing a large lawn with a temple-like folly. What a mood shift, from one garden to the next!

Subtropical and Australian Gardens

Glancing at the map I decided to see the Australian Garden next, and I passed the Subtropical Garden along a path facing directly into the ferocious setting sun. This made for great lighting effects on plants like white-flowering sea squill (Drimia maritima) growing under live oaks…

…and bottlebrush, as I neared the Australian Garden.

But by the time I got there, I was cooked, and the garden didn’t look particularly shady, so I just kept trudging toward a towering wall of bamboo that promised coolness and relief.

Japanese Garden

Ahh, a leafy green wall tall enough to block the sun! The narrow entry from this direction might be easy to miss, were it not for the foo dogs (stone lions) guarding the path.


I entered the Japanese Garden through a mysterious bamboo forest of swaying culms and rustling leaves.

Climbing steadily uphill, I came to a paved courtyard with a collection of bonsai displayed on wooden stands.

Montezuma cypress in miniature

And olive

Next I strolled through a meditative Zen courtyard, with raked white gravel, boulder islands, and cloud-pruned trees.

A grand stair, zigzagging along one side, exits the Zen garden, and from here I entered the main garden.

Completed in 1912, the tranquil Japanese Garden includes a tall, arching moon bridge and reflecting pond. It was growing lovelier by the minute as the hateful sun sank behind the trees.

Intimate vignettes, like this tsukubai fountain…

…and carved figure near a tumbling stream, made for delightful discoveries along the winding hillside path.

Chinese Garden

As the terrain leveled out, I came upon the Chinese Garden, enclosed along one side by an undulating, tile-roofed white wall.

Known as Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, the Chinese Garden opened to the public in 2008 — a century after the Japanese Garden.

Having twice visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, I knew to expect covered walkways leading to a series of paved courtyards with intricate details.

What I didn’t anticipate was being completely alone with the garden. It was all mine.

The light was soft as dusk came on.

A beautiful detail

Pebble mosaic courtyard — and banana trees by the moon gate?

The teahouse was closed for the day, but I admired the woodwork…

…and rested on its terrace, which overlooks a picturesque lake. The building that resembles a boat, at center, is part of a phase two addition to the garden, currently under construction.

Along the opposite side of the lake, a pavilion known as Terrace of the Jade Mirror shelters amid weeping willows.

Moon gates invite you through it.

Another pebble mosaic path and a carved stone bridge lead on. Note the limestone rocks arrayed along the edges — similar to the holey limestone we have here in central Texas.

Pavilion of the Three Friends comes into view here, with a fine view of the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

And the three friends? According to Chinese tradition, bamboo, pine, and plum are considered the three friends of winter for the pine and bamboo’s evergreen foliage and the plum’s early spring flowers. Together, explains the Huntington’s website, they symbolize fortitude, integrity, and resilience.

One last look. The Chinese Garden surprised me by turning out to be my favorite part of the Huntington gardens, in part, no doubt, due to the perfect golden hour during which I visited.

North Vista and Camellia Garden

The light was still sweet as I made my way through the Camellia Garden via the North Vista, a vast lawn anchored at one end by this baroque fountain adorned with carved fish and shells. The website explains, “The Italian fountain had been brought to England in the early 18th century and remained there until it was purchased by Henry Huntington in 1915. It was shipped from New York in 48 boxes that filled an entire railway car. Oddly enough, the fountain arrived without assembly instructions and with a few extra pieces. It eventually was installed five years after the completion of the main house (ca. 1916).”

The lawn is lined with 18th-century sculpted figures, camellias, and palms, and at the opposite end sits the former home of Henry and Arabella Huntington, which today houses part of their art collection.

I’m sure this garden sees most of its traffic in winter, when the camellias bloom, but it’s lovely in its summer greens too — although that lawn no doubt requires a lot of water to remain so green. The tall, skinny palms lend a distinctly California vibe to all the classicism.

California and Celebration Gardens

As the sun set and the staff prepared to close up, I straggled back, blissed out, toward the entrance, passing through the Mediterranean-style Celebration Garden, which is part of the water-wise California Garden. A shallow rill descends along a series of terraces formally planted with lavender, grasses, kangaroo paws, and other dry-adapted plants.

Red kangaroo paws looks especially pretty against cool-blue yuccas.

I would imitate this in a heartbeat if kangaroo paws tolerated Austin’s humid summer climate.

The grasses looked great too.

I love this combo, although I recognize only the yellow-flowering yarrow. Anyone know what the purple flowers are (update: looks like Scaevola aemula; thanks, Lara!), and is that a euphorbia at lower right?

Closer to the entrance, the garden loses its formality with casually inviting seating areas tucked amid billowing grasses.

The Huntington truly is an amazing collection of plants beautifully designed. I’m so glad I had a chance to explore it after-hours, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this very long recap.

Gift Shop

Part of my hideout time in the gift shop was spent autographing copies of my book Lawn Gone!, which I spotted prominently displayed as soon as I walked in the door.

How exciting! My thanks to the Huntington for carrying it and for treating us at GWA to a very special after-hours visit.

That wraps up my series of Los Angeles-area garden tours. Click through for a look back at the beautiful Volk Garden, which has a borrowed view of the Huntington. You’ll find links back to my other L.A. garden posts at the end of each post you follow.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

29 Responses

  1. Love your Japanese garden photos. I didn’t make it there because I was just about at the point of heat stroke because I went out earlier, presumably to see more. It’s interesting that many of those elements were almost identical in the Portland Chinese garden.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      It was just so hot when you bravely set off into the gardens, Diana. I’m sorry you didn’t make it all the way through. I didn’t either, since I skipped the Australian and Subtropical gardens. —Pam

  2. Jenny says:

    You certainly packed a lot into that 45 minutes in the garden. Who doesn’t like to browse garden gift shops. It’s something I always look forward to at the end of a visit but at 103° you chose a good spot to hang out. I know this is a very photogenic garden from my own visit but your photos are stunning. We visited in January when all the aloes were in bloom which was special but despite the heat summer also looks like any time is a good time to visit. With this post you’ll have many longing to get to that garden. I want to go back there for a second look.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Oh no, I spent 3 to 3-1/2 hours in the gardens, Jenny. I left the gift shop around 3:45 pm, and although the garden closed at 4:30 pm, we GWA attendees were allowed to stay on through 7 pm. It was a treat! I’d love to go back when the aloes are in bloom. Lucky you to have seen them! —Pam

  3. Lara Leaf says:

    One of these days… ! I have heard so much about this garden all my life, it seems. It would be like visiting a celebrity, lol. Your photos are excellent and you showed very good sense in waiting to go out into the garden until later in the afternoon! Love how you caught that late-in-the-day glow on the plants, especially the cactus. Your article is wonderful.

    That low-lying blue flower plant looks to me like Scaevola aemula, commonly called the fan flower.

  4. Lydia Plunk says:

    Entering that gift store is like going to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, but without the traffic. What a treat to see you holding your book.

    Do come back. Bring friends.

  5. anita davis says:

    I live a mile fron this garden, visit often, and love it. Your beautiful photos and comments showed me things I’ve never noticed. Thanks for the eye-opener!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      You are so very lucky, Anita! Now when are you going to start blogging so that you can share this garden with the rest of us in every season? ;-) —Pam

  6. hb says:

    So glad you got a chance to visit late in the day. Great photos in that slanted sunlight. It can be so brutally hot there, we usually visit most in the winter, and not at all in summer.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Oh heavens, is that heat normal?? I was expecting 80s, maybe lower 90s F in Southern California in late September, but I seem destined to experience Texas summers wherever I travel. —Pam

  7. You managed to see lots that I’ve never, in all my many visits to the Huntington, seen. I just can’t tear myself away from the Desert Garden! (although I do typically spend quite a bit of time in the Australian Garden as well).

  8. Diana Studer says:

    the banana at the moon gate looks like Strelitzia nicolai – grows VERY tall.
    Tree aloe is kokerboom, quiver tree, Aloe dichotoma.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thanks for the IDs, Diana. I was surprised to see the bananas used formally on each side of the moon gate. Isn’t that an unusual choice for a Chinese garden? —Pam

  9. Jean says:

    Lucky you to get such great light for photos. And to have so much of it to yourself! I saw it last Christmas and could barely move through the Japanese and Chinese gardens since they were so packed with people. But regardless, I really did love the bamboo forest, and I can’t forget the barrel cacti. :-)

  10. Denise says:

    I can’t believe all you packed in that weekend. You have more stamina than Hillary! Glad you finally saw the Huntington. I agree with Hoov, I don’t go very often in summer unless it’s a plant sale.

  11. peter schaar says:

    Pam, your excellent photos brought me back to the Huntington again! I try to visit every time I’m in SoCal, usually spending the most time in the desert and rose gardens. Your photos make me anxious to get there again. Maybe at Thanksgiving.

  12. Fabulous photos. You must have been concentrating to get the best shot in short time. A beautiful place for sure.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I was in the gardens for 3 to 3.5 hours, Lisa, so it wasn’t such a rushed visit. But the place is huge, and you could easily spend a whole day. —Pam

  13. TexasDeb says:

    You are a real trooper. It is difficult perhaps for anybody not currently experiencing triple digits to fathom how very exhausting it is just to remain upright in such heat. It saps so much energy and I typically find my interest wanes apace. But you!

    You not only managed to tour in that heat but captured significantly enticing photos all along the way. In multiple areas. That speaks to dedication and proficiency way beyond the pale. Well done and thank you!