Gardens We Love

With brilliant blooms, flowing fountains and verdant foliage, Southern California botanical gardens make for an easy but rewarding natural adventure.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by ®Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

The Pavilion of the Three Friends at the Huntington’s Garden of Flowing Fragrance, Liu Fang Yuan.


entura County hillsides have burst into landscapes of color, thanks to warmer temperatures and rays of sunshine. But there are other places to take in the glorious riches of the season. Just an hour (or so) away you’ll find botanical gardens which promise dense foliage, colorful flowers, sparkling fountains and other splendors (both natural and manmade) that will leave you feeling refreshed and inspired. Here are some of our favorites.

1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
626.405.2100 or

This cultural institution near Pasadena has been a center for art, science and literature for 100 years. Established in 1919 by railroad magnate Henry Huntington and his wife, Arabella, the Huntington boasts a research institution, a collection of rare books and manuscripts, five art galleries and 120 acres of meticulously maintained botanical gardens.

It has arguable become most famous for the latter.

With 16 themed gardens, nearly every significant biome of the world is represented. The grounds include cycads, an Australian garden, a large and impressive desert garden and a shady sculpture garden with Greco-Roman replicas. But that’s just a small sampling of the lush Eden that awaits the visitor.

Inside the greenhouse Conservatory, a spiral pathway leads through different levels of a tropical forest canopy, with a separate section for a carnivorous plant bog and numerous interactive exhibits. From there you’ll encounter the Children’s Garden, a wonderland of fountains, underground tunnels, fairy doors and more. Designed for the younger set, but enchanting for visitors of all ages.

The tranquil Japanese Garden has meandering paths that traverse a landscape filled with groomed shrubs and trees, a serene koi pond, a ceremonial tea house, numerous bonsai and the Zen Court, with carefully raked gravel and rocks. Two gorgeous paths — a lower one along a picturesque rushing stream, or an upper one among the colorful camellias — lead from the Japanese to the Chinese Garden, or Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance. This beautifully designed landscape is dominated by a large lake surrounded by bridges, limestone rocks imported from China’s Lake Tai and doorways designed to frame specific views. The Dumpling and Noodle House offers delicious Chinese and Tibetan cuisine with the most serene views at the Huntington.

The Rose Garden features shrubs and trellises of roses which are at their most glorious in June. Nearby is the ever-fragrant herb garden. In between them sits the Rose Garden Tea Room, where a traditional English tea is offered daily. Reservations are highly recommended for this very popular pastime.

There’s so much to enjoy at the Huntington: art galleries, the library, a jungle garden, the lily ponds and more. A solid 3-4 hours (plus time for lunch) is recommended. And definitely bring your walking shoes and some water, as there are over 100 acres to explore.

17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades

The mammoth Getty Center in Brentwood holds the majority of the enormous art collection amassed by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. But for those who love Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities, the Getty Villa, situated on the beautiful Malibu coast in Pacific Palisades, is where it’s at.

The Getty Villa is a replica of the Villa dei Papiri, a luxurious Roman country home that was near the city of Herculaneum, buried by volcanic ash from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Thus, the museum offers an excellent example of early Roman architecture and a taste of life in the first century.

Its galleries house an impressive collection of pottery, statuary and other artifacts from ancient Greece and Rome. But the big draws are four wonderful gardens with Mediterranean plants, traditional fountains and pools and dozens of works of art.

Within the galleries is the open-air Inner Peristyle, surrounded by a colonnade and featuring decorative marble floors, walls and ceilings. This courtyard holds replicas of artifacts found at both Papiri (the bronzes and fountains) and Pompeii (the ceiling, walls and Ionic columns). The shady square is lush with well-manicured foliage, Roman busts and marble fountains, and the central pool is lined with elegant statues of young women.

The Herb Garden is designed in the traditional Roman style, and contains neat square plots of plants first-century households would have used for cooking and medicine: thyme, rosemary, lavender, sorrel, basil, etc. There are also vegetables and numerous fruit trees. In the center is a pool filled with koi and decorated with a waterspout featuring Silenus (a companion of Dionysus).

Don’t miss the small but impressive East Garden. A cool, quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of the main sections of the museum, it features ample shade with benches for relaxation, sycamore and laurel trees, a circular fountain and another against the wall with a colorful and intricate tile mosaic.

The largest and most stunning is the Outer Peristyle. Frescoes adorn the columned loggia on either side, which frame a garden of Mediterranean plants (bay laurel, boxwood, oleander and pomegranate) and statuary. The central focus is the long, narrow reflecting pool, decorated with sizable bronzes on either end.

Refreshment can be found at the cafe, offering Mediterranean-inspired fare prepared with locally sourced ingredients, as well as a coffee cart with hot and cold drinks, snacks and ice cream. On the way out, take some time to shop the museum store, which has a wonderful mix of jewelry, books, glassware and more.

Entrance to the museum is free, but a timed-entry ticket is required — and readily available via the website. Parking is $10-15 per car. The museum is closed on Tuesdays.


Madame Ganna Walska, born Hanna Puacz in 1887, was a Polish opera singer who graced stages on both sides of the pond in the 1920s-30s. Her talent is a matter of some debate, but most agree that she was beautiful, intelligent and captivating, with a flair for the dramatic that made her both a style icon and a popular socialite. She married six times, traveled extensively, developed an interest in spirituality and horticulture, and came to California in 1941, purchasing an expansive estate in Montecito that would become both her home and her passion.

Walska spent the next 40-plus years of her life creating the botanical wonderland that is Lotusland: 25 themed gardens on 37 acres, home to more than 3,000 plant species. She had a special love for succulents and cacti, but delights of all types can be found at Lotusland.

Walska’s keen sense of fashion and style extended to landscape design, and throughout the grounds one finds diversity, color and whimsy. In the Aloe Garden, a pale blue pool has a perimeter of irridescent abalone shells and a cascading fountain made of enormous clam shells. A swimming pool in the fern garden was designed to resemble a sandy beach. Squat, peculiar antique stone grotesques (brought over from Walska’s home in France) are arrayed in the Theatre Garden. The ground-dwelling clock in the Topiary Garden is designed with colorful low-lying succulents and decorated with copper signs of the Zodiac. Several gardens feature stones and glass in a variety of colors to coordinate with the plants. Truly, Walska considered every detail.

The name “Lotusland” was derived from the Water Garden, filled with Asian lotus of various species and cultivars, with water lilies in the ponds around it. A peaceful pool in fall and winter, the Water Garden becomes a thing of beauty and majesty in spring and summer, when the flowers bloom in bright pink and white. The lotus bloom starts in late May and is a highlight of the season.

In 2017, an extensive renovation was begun on the Japanese Garden, to make it accessible to all visitors and create a space of serenity and healing. The Japanese Garden will reopen in fall 2019.

Up until the last years of her life, Walska was Lotusland’s head gardener. In her hands it became a place of beauty and wonder: captivating, intelligently designed, full of drama and spectacle. Much like the Madame herself.

Access to Lotusland is by guided tour only, and reservations are required. Directions are provided upon tour confirmation. Tours take place at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 16-Nov. 15, and last about two hours; comfortable clothing and good walking shoes are recommended.

Outer Peristyle at the Getty Villa Photo: Elon Schoenholz
© 2018 J. Paul Getty Trust.

Opera singer-turned-gardener Ganna Walska knew how to create a spectacle, on or off the stage. The dozens of enormous barrel cacti grouped together just outside the entrance to her courtyard were intended to overwhelm the viewer, and made a dramatic sight back in the day. Photo by Bob Craig, Lotusland


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