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 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.
On a recent walk, Folsom called out a “buenos dias” here and a folksy “hello” there, equally at ease with The Huntington’s monied patrons as he is with the Latino gardeners who speak only Spanish.
He ticks off an ambitious wish list for the gardens: Replace walkways, arbors and individual rocks that now look as inappropriate as plastic flowers would in the fresh arrangements in The Huntington tea room; create an amphitheater landscaped with roses; build a bonsai garden and Chinese gardens, and develop an interactive video system so visitors of many languages can learn about plants.
Then there is the project to create educational botanical posters for inner-city children and senior citizens. “The palette is always full,” he said.
In a lighter vein, Folsom wants to make the gardens more romantic for its half-million visitors.
A local periodical recently cited The Huntington as the second-best kissing spot in Los Angeles County, and Folsom declared: “I want to make it No. 1.” More drooping vines and proper placement of certain exotic plants, including cacti and weeping willow, he says, should do the trick.
He has $100 million worth of ideas and a $1.3-million annual budget. The money is allocated to the botanical gardens by the private, nonprofit trust that operates The Huntington.
“The temptation is to do a lot of things and do them cheaply. You’re better off doing a good job on one thing at a time, so there is a real legacy,” Folsom said.
Take the gate and fence project of Andrew Mitchell, a Pasadena carpenter whose workshop is hidden from public view beneath spreading oaks and a tarpaulin stretched across a bamboo frame.
To make the Japanese gardens more accessible to the disabled, the entrance gate has been moved and the new fence and a walkway are being built. The project is sensitive to form and function, Folsom says, mindful that the Japanese garden’s style should reflect the 1920s-era when it was created.
To this end, Folsom had Mitchell rework the moon bridge, which had been painted red. The paint was stripped, the wood repaired and burnished brown with a torch in traditional Japanese style. Walkways are being revamped to have a 1920s patina. Eventually, Folsom hopes to repair the Japanese house in the gardens.
For decades, the Japanese gardens have served as an inspiration for weekly ikebana classes. Passing by a classroom, Folsom stopped to say hello to Mary B. Taylor-Hunt, who has taught the flower arranging class as a Huntington volunteer since 1957.
Seeing the arrangements the women have made using red lycoris, he launched into an extemporaneous talk about the spindly blossoms that resemble giant spider legs. “We called them spider lilies when I was growing up in the South. They were everywhere. Here they have a little harder time.”
It was in the humid South that Folsom fell in love with plants. He had a greenhouse, watched his father grow tomatoes and his mother grow everything from azaleas to pear trees. Later, as an Auburn University student, he worked as a “peanut peon” in a peanut research facility.
Eventually, as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas, he became an expert on orchids. He traveled in Latin America, living at times in Colombia, Peru, Panama and Costa Rica, and surviving bouts with malaria, robbers and buses careening off the road.
Today, he translates that experience into the care of the cymbidiums that since 1910 have blossomed in the filtered shade of camellias and tall trees at The Huntington.
“It takes more to keep up a garden like this than most people can imagine,” Folsom said above the sound of lawn mowers stirring the smell of fresh-cut grass.
The garden is constantly being created.
Visitors often want to make their contribution, from the wealthy Pasadena family donating an exquisite collection of succulents to the white-collar criminal who fails to persuade Folsom that the gardens should accept a $100,000 collection of koi as a pre-incarceration tax write-off.
Folsom did not have the heart to say no to a Thai family. Speaking little English, they showed up one day with a box of turtles they had rescued from being sold for food in a market. The family told Folsom they tried to think of the most beautiful place where the turtles could live.
So there they were. After Folsom gave his OK, the family scratched some words on the turtles’ undersides, said a prayer and released them into the waters of the Japanese gardens.
“This is a garden that is en marche , moving forward,” he said. “The mandate was to build a great garden and great plant collection. We are still trying to do that. It’s a living organism.”
It is an organism he clearly loves, from the roses that can also be found in suburban gardens to its Giant Tree of Tule from Mexico or Kashmir cypress, the largest specimen of its kind in the United States.
Even he finds himself amazed when he sees a certain plant. “I’ll say: ‘I never saw that before.’ And you know it’s probably been here close to 100 years.”
He is never more amazed, he says, than on the moonlight walks he takes with his family or a few close friends or special Huntington benefactors.
On the occasion of a blue moon in August, he ventured out. The ornate statues glowed like ghosts. Crickets sang and owls fluttered through the treetops.
Folsom squished across St. Augustine grass covered with the fragrant fruits of jelly palms. His fingers touched the shining fronds of a Mediterranean fan palm, bathed by the moon. “Can you believe how much you can see in the moonlight?”
Then, as he led a small group meandering among stark silhouettes formed by thousands of plants that shoot up from the desert garden, he answered himself: “I don’t know if anything is more incredible.”