Botanical Treasures At The Huntington

To be a railroad baron in the early 20th century meant you could retire to southern California at 60 to concentrate not on money, but on fine art, rare books and acres of gardens.

That was the life of of Henry Huntington, who could thank his beneficent uncle for two important things: an entree to fabulous wealth and a long introduction to his future wife, his uncle’s widow.

His legacy is The Huntington in Pasadena, Calif., a rare combination of research library, art gallery and botanic garden. I paid a visit there in late winter.

The weather was SoCal gorgeous, so I spent most of my time in the gardens. It’s an amazing place, especially for anyone from New England, where strange, unfamiliar plants spread out in all directions.

A solarium at The Huntington, Pasadena, Calif.

The botanical gardens are divided into several specialized plantings that include a desert garden, a Japanese garden, a palm garden and others.

The desert garden at The Huntington, Pasadena, Calif. This section focused on barrel cactus, with other, taller types arranged in the back.

I like the desert garden best, maybe because it’s so foreign to what can be grown in New England. There are all sorts of cacti, from small furry balls to towering saguaro. Many have beautiful flowers that contrast with ridged and thorny stems.

The cactus garden at The Huntington, Pasadena, Calif.

The desert garden is just one of many at The Huntington. One section is called the jungle garden, featuring lush plants and towering ficus trees. Below, water rushes under the huge leaves of the swiss cheese plant, known in the east mostly as a houseplant. These leaves are perhaps 4 feet long.

A small brook, an artifice here in southern California, flows through the jungle garden at The Huntington in Pasadena.

Easterners tend to think of palms as those roadside sentinels lining the streets of Beverly Hills. Of course, there are many varieties of palms from all over the world.

An interesting trunk in the palm garden, The Huntington, Pasadena. Calif.

The Huntington also has a beautiful Victorian greenhouse. It’s a bit of a disappointment, though, because although it’s large, there are comparatively few plants grown inside, and the labeling is insufficient. On the day I visited, though, there was a gorgeous display of orchids.

Paphiopedilum orchids in The Huntington’s greenhouse.
Gorgeous yellow paphiopedilum at The Huntington.

I spent an entire day at the Huntington, and only briefly ducked into the art galleries. Those will have to wait for another visit.



Time, Memory, Gumbo Limbo

Given sufficient room, the gumbo limbo tree casts a wide shade.

A friend recently posted on Facebook a check-in at the Gumbo Limbo Restaurant, the “casual” spot at the Naples, Fla., Four Seasons. A memorable, fanciful name for a restaurant.

The reference is cleverly culinary, with thoughts turning to the famous spicy Louisiana stew. But it’s actually referring to a tree.

Hearing about gumbo limbo brought back memories of my time in South Florida many years ago. A born and bred Northeasterner, I found myself surrounded by vegetation I’d never encountered before.

Key among them was gumbo limbo, a common tree native to South Florida and the Caribbean, and a name you couldn’t ignore or forget.

It’s not a particularly noble tree. In the wild, young trees form rather narrow trunks that branch in kind of an awkward way; overall, a shrubby appearance. You notice them in the hammocks (those small islands of trees and brush in the Everglades), mostly by their blistering, peeling coppery bark.

The peeling bark of the gumbo limbo tree.

But give the gumbo limbo a little room, and it will develop into a multi-branched, architectural specimen. Branches will emerge close to the ground, and long, contorting limbs will spread out many feet, bending gracefully toward the ground.

The glossy leaves are alternately pinnate, almost fernlike, allowing light to filter through. In the relentless Florida sun, the gumbo limbo is an oasis of shade.

During my time in South Florida, I saw a lot of gumbo limbos. Some were undistinguished scrub eking out a living in some thicket at the side of the road. But others, usually in parks, at the shore, or in a manion’s lawn, were majestic sculptures, with thick orangey trunks and graceful limbs that seemed to reach down to offer shelter from the sun.

The memory was almost as good as lunch at the Four Seasons.

The gumbo limbo tree casts a wide shade.









Untangling The “Money Tree”

They call this the “money tree,” a marketer’s moniker alluding to the plant’s ability to bring its owner good luck and prosperity. Supposedly, its braided trunks trap the luck and keep it in the house.

And although the plant, Pachira aquatica (or perhaps a close relative, Pachira glabra), is native to Central and South America, it has somehow gotten tangled up in sales pitches with Asian allusions and with lucky bamboo, another hapless victim of silly names. (It’s not a bamboo, but a type of dracaena).

Even so, it’s a really nice houseplant. Commonly sold with five or so trunks braided together, it has the ability to form woody stems at an early age and sprout new growth directly from the trunk. It has the look of a carefully trained bonsai.

It’s a cooperative subject, willing to become an authentic bonsai if its roots are trimmed and potted appropriately. Otherwise, it’s just as happy subsisting in a small pot, allowing its stems to continue to be braided as they grow.

Mine came in a very small 3-inch pot, and I recently decided it needed to be repotted.

Pachia aquatica (left) in its original 3-inch pot, and it’s new, 5-inch clay pot.


I’m guessing by its growth habit and suitability as a bonsai subject that it likes to be root-bound, so I didn’t want to put it in too large a container. A 5-inch clay pot seemed ideal.

The next consideration was potting soil. Again, because I want it to remain small and not bolt up to the 50-foot height it can achieve in the wild, I decided a lean soil with very good drainage was necessary. So I added vermiculite and a good dose of small pebbles to the potting soil.

These small pebbles, purchased in a nursery, can be used for drainage or as decorative topping for potted plants.


The resulting mixed looked like this:

Potting soil amended with vermiculate and pebbles for good drainage.


My money tree has been sprouting new leaves. Now we’ll have to see if repotting will encourage more growth, or whether it will put all its efforts into growing new roots.

Pachira aquatica in its new pot.

Time To Start Some Seeds

My “Dr. Frankenstein” laboratory in the basement has been out of use for at least two or three years.

It’s the place where I start my seeds during the winter. It’s a primitive arrangement — a old-fashioned fluorescent fixture on chains (so I can lower and raise it), with some grow light tubes installed.

Luckily, I now have this new setup:


I like this fixture. It’s simple, yet robust. It fits on my workbench and the high-output lights can be moved up and down through a pulley arrangement.

So we’ll see how this works out. Something to watch out for: Will I forget to water my seedlings?