Something is always in bloom at this legendary public garden in Southern California, whatever the season, but May is probably the most glorious month for flowers. Founded a century ago, when Henry Huntington bought the 600-acre San Marino Ranch and began collecting plants, as well as old-master paintings and extraordinary antiques, the Huntington Gardens now cover most of 120 acres 12 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
Those acres contain 12 major theme gardens, including the newest, a Chinese garden based on classic Chinese landscape design principles, and one of the oldest, the Japanese Garden, which was originally finished in 1912 and has just reopened following a year’s refurbishment.
A world-renowned collection of camellias grows between the Chinese Garden and the Japanese Garden; some 60 species and more than a thousand cultivars thrive there, and the bloom season extends from January into May. The peaceful, almost sylvan feeling of the camellia grove belies the fact that serious study goes on here. Which cultivars do best in this climate? The staff aims to find out; in fact, they are generally testing about 100 new camellias at any time.
Stroll along the paths from the mansion where Henry and Arabella Huntington lived to the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery, and you’ll find yourself in the Shakespeare Garden. A faux creek bed is ablaze with irises, columbines, ranunculus, poppies, pansies, rosemary…. Here, scattered among the flowers, you’ll discover the occasional plaque bearing a quote from the Bard himself. This area has been redesigned and replanted several times. The original idea, back in 1959, was that only flora mentioned in Shakespeare’s work would grow here. One problem: this is southern California, not England, so most of the flowers that bloomed in Shakespeare’s spring bloomed in the cool of the year, leaving the area rather barren during the summer, when the Huntington draws thousands of tourists from around the world. Careful thought went into the additions—bloom times, certainly, but also drought tolerance and color and hardiness. The result is one of the most spectacular of all garden areas almost year-round.
Roses are one of the glories these grounds. More than 4,000 of them are spread over three and a half acres. They range from once-blooming old roses tucked into a small area beside the tea room (tea at the Huntington is worth a trip all by itself) to mass plantings of ‘French Lace’ around the tempietto. Hybrid tea roses, a nice group of garden roses, climbers, ramblers, miniatures—the array is lavish. In fact, the Huntington even boasts its very own creation, ‘Huntington’s Hero,’ a sport of the Austin rose ‘Hero’, that is now commercially available.
The Huntington’s garden designers don’t make it obvious that they have chosen plants for color, but the effect is always there. Wisteria drips from arbors, echoing the lavender blossoms of the jacarandas and the trumpet vines that bloom in May. Purple-leafed plums, red-leafed Japanese maples, and chartreuse underplantings play off the sober dark greens of oaks that match those in the Constables you’ll see indoors on the walls of the galleries. The plantings also take advantage of the fact that a great deal of the property is hilly. The Japanese Garden is cleverly designed to lead the eye across a glen and up the opposite slopes.
Open to the public from 10:30 to 4:30 on Saturdays and Sundays, and from noon to 4:30 Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the paths invite ambling; the benches entice visitors to sit and appreciate the serenity of this oasis near bustling Los Angeles. With all of the flowers in bloom during the month of May, it’s an ideal destination for Mother’s Day! For more information, visit https://www.huntington.org/