I’m an unashamed member of the Google Maps generation. It’s a reflex. Whenever I hear about a place that I don’t know, I’ll click over to Maps, swoop down across the blue-green world and stomp through the disjointed reality of street view. I have a definite sense of resentment when the aerial imagery is pixelated or the blue line of available street view imagery doesn’t go all the way down a rural lane or footpath. “See the world without leaving your couch!”
With these proclivities, you’d might expect that I’d have a solid route planned out when I go to visit a garden. I do when it’s a garden I know well. But the first time that I visit a place (garden, city, rural environs), I want to discover it on foot. No expectations, no agenda. I’ll take a map from the stack, just in case, then shove it straight in my back pocket.
This is partly due to my complete lack of any sense of direction or orientation. The more professional-sounding explanation is that I want the place to reveal itself to me as I move through it. I’m fortunate enough to be relatively physical able (though lazy), so I have the privilege of being extravagant with my movements. I don’t mind trekking back and forth, discovering new views and spatial experiences as I move through the landscape. Insect-like, I follow a jerky and convoluted path as I dart from one object of interest to another. Usually, it’s a plant.
All of which setup is a long way of getting to the point that, when I visited the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens two weeks ago, I went through the gardens in the “wrong” direction.
I’d already been startled in the parking lot by the bloom of a giant magenta tabebuia in full flower, plus the glory of California-blue ceanothus lapping in puddles between rows of parked cars. So once I’d gotten through the admissions process, I took the first right directly into the garden. This put me in a weird succession of spaces - lawns with planting bays designed for showcasing rotating collections of large-scale exterior art installations.
After a bit of aimless wandering through this uninteresting bit, I stumbled into a thicket that was labelled as the camellia collection. These camellias weren’t the giant bastions of bloom I’m used to in Little Rock. Apparently the mild California winters mean that they dole out a few blooms at a time. Stingy, if you ask me. Pushing through a few of these disappointing plants, I emerged into sunshine. A giant lawn spread out in front of me, flanked by banks of camellias, lined with astonishing Washingtonia palms and a revolting collection of figurative marble statues with classical aspirations. With this, I started to realize that - for me - the Huntington was a combination of moments of sheer beauty and instances of incredible ugliness, ricochetting from one pole to another with a fierceness that I hadn’t experienced for a long time.
The next area of the garden was another example of this aesthetic badminton. You’ve already seen the digitalis meadow photo in the entry paragraphs. I loved those chunky digitalis spires rising out of messy grass. Directly across the way, those same digitalis were enmeshed in a horticultural purgatory of lisianthus, matthiola, and pansies.
The Asian gardens - both Chinese and Japanese - evoked equally conflicting feelings. I loved the wonderful craft evidenced in the materiality of hardscape, furnishings, and plantings. Just look at that carefully-laid stonework and regularly irregularly edging. Somebody thought about that.
But the overall effect of the Chinese garden didn’t work for me.
In the strange intersticial woodland area between Chinese and Japanese gardens, I found a planting that I absolutely adored - the anemone-like Eomecon chionantha with its dangling white flowers naturalized in between bolsters of crimson camellias and shag carpet clumps of liriope.
There were a few other strange and wonderful things in this area - multi-tiered azalea standards planted in scattered drifts, cymbidiums naturalized on the forest floor, and unfortunate outcroppings of volcanic rock.
Mounting the many stairs to the Japanese garden (I counted them but didn’t jot the number down, it was at least 3 digits), I was thrilled at the wonderful material complexity. My designer soul got all excited about those multiple layers...mondo grass, cut stone, pebble, raised wooden barrier, cut stone setts, cut stone paver. That’s how you define an edge.
After all this aesthetic badminton, I got into some parts of the garden that resonated more strongly with me. The cactus gardens were truly incredible. The forms are so different to anything that I work with on a daily basis - glowing spheres of barrel cactus, bristling pincushions of mammillaria, all-consuming tufts of puya. They challenge my aesthetic vocabulary - I don’t encounter these forms, colors, and light effects in the wet subtropical and temperate ecosystems of the southeast.
So, yes, I went to the Huntington. It’s a truly wonderful place. Some beautiful bits, some ugly bits. I learned about southern California plants - and I learned about me. Maps can give you a lot - but they can’t give you the sensational memories of a walk in the California spring. Time to lace up your walking shoes and go...