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.
The botanical gardens are divided into several specialized plantings that include a desert garden, a Japanese garden, a palm garden and others.
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 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.
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.
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.
I spent an entire day at the Huntington, and only briefly ducked into the art galleries. Those will have to wait for another visit.