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The Secret Garden : Henry Huntington's Estate Is a Botanical Wonder, of Course, but the Ultimate Tour Guide Offers a Fresh Look at the Beauty


SAN MARINO — James Folsom runs his fingers across a piece of fine lumber--western red cedar from a Canadian forest.

The wood, cradled on an outdoor workbench, seems as alive as any of the amazing collection of 75,000 individual plants and trees that Folsom oversees as director of the botanical gardens of The Huntington. Soon, it will be a fence post.

An artisan is cutting 18 intricate joints into it by hand to make part of a new entrance gate and fence for The Huntington's Japanese gardens.

When visitors pass through the finished entrance, Folsom hopes they will say: "God, that Mr. Huntington, he knew how to do things right."

"Henry Huntington was a builder," Folsom said. "We're still building this garden for Henry."

Only the third botanical curator since the gardens were planted at the turn of the century, Folsom, 43, is preserving and reshaping the grounds, fence post by fence post, plant by plant. He is the general in a campaign to maintain the gardens with the feel they exuded in the 1920s.

"What I want is that 100 years from now visitors will still believe they are walking through a private estate garden," said Folsom, who has been at The Huntington for nine years, five in his current position.

He sees himself and his staff of 10 botanists and 45 gardeners (one spends most of his time trapping gophers) as stewards whose job is to infuse the gardens of today with Henry Huntington's vision from yesteryear.

In this country-estate-gone-wild, Folsom said, "the love of plants wins aesthetic battles over schools of landscape design."

The ultimate tour guide for the collection is the gregarious Folsom--in need of a hat to keep his balding head from singeing as he walks the gardens in summer. The gardens and their director share common qualities: both are engaging, expansive and whimsical.

He walks nonstop. He talks nonstop, in an accent strongly reminiscent of his Alabama boyhood in the Chattahoochee River town of Eufaula. Every phrase, every sentence is chock-full: whether with scientific knowledge or simply a tale well-told.

"The garden is so different today that Henry Huntington would barely recognize it," Folsom said, making his way under pergolas covered with roses. "Plants are changing, growing and dying. Half of the gardens weren't even here when (he) was alive. But the goal is to make visitors think they were."

Henry E. Huntington, the railroad and real estate tycoon, died in 1927. In a secluded spot many visitors miss, Folsom walks under slender eucalyptus that encircle a mausoleum created by John R. Pope, who later designed the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.

The bodies of Huntington and his wife, Arabella, are entombed at their estate, which houses the vast collection of rare plants, books and fine art he bequeathed to the public.

The gardens, like the library with its books dating from Chaucer's era and the art gallery with its famous paintings of "Blue Boy" and "Pinkie," have their treasures.

There are more than 9,000 species, a United Nations of plants. Expeditions by Huntington botanists have brought back seed bounty from every continent, save for Antarctica.

In the 12-acre desert garden alone, there are 5,000 to 6,000 species, including 300 kinds of pincushion cacti.

Huntington's own rail lines ferried boxcars of cacti from Arizona and Mexico to his estate. Some plants are 200 years old.

There are 1,200 kinds of camellias, 2,000 kinds of roses and 1,800 kinds of day lilies.

To Huntington's delight, he found that Southern California's climate could sustain a huge variety of fruit trees. So he planted peaches alongside oranges, and created one of California's first commercial avocado groves from the pit of an avocado he was served at the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles.

"Henry Huntington had this 19th-Century European sense that you could improve the world . . . by making more plants available," Folsom said. "He was not a horticulturist, agronomist or botanist. He was a collector."

In midday brightness or full-moon effervescence, to walk the gardens with Folsom the botanist is dizzying.

For miles at a time he crisscrosses The Huntington's 207 acres. His wife, Debra, also a botanist at The Huntington, issues this warning about her husband:

A walk in the gardens with him can be dangerous, if you are in need of food, drink or rest. You can become trapped amid exotic plants. Sometimes, only the lure of a coconut pie or his 10-month-old daughter Molly or an important appointment snaps him out of garden-induced trances.

Regardless, whether he is dressed in a safari hat and khakis or in suit and tie to deliver a botanical lecture, Folsom seems quite at home at The Huntington.

He is.

He and his family live tucked away on the grounds in a Mediterranean-style house, built in 1930, two decades after Huntington own's Beaux-Arts style mansion was completed. Noted architect Myron Hunt designed the house for the gardens' first botanical director, William Hertrich.

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