Office of the President
Laura Skandera Trombley
Environmental Sustainability: The Work of a Botanical Garden
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2015 - September has always heralded the beginning of a new school year with much promise and excitement. This fall is a special one for my family because, for the first time in 38 years, I will not be caught up in the bustle of the beginning of the academic semester; instead my son, Nelson, will take my place as he starts college. When we drove across the country to his campus in August, we passed through the arid states of California, Arizona, Colorado, and Nebraska. It was not until we rolled across Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, and finally New York that we saw significant amounts of water. The difference between the dry, scorched environment of Southern California and the lush greenery in upstate New York was striking and dismaying.
After many years of drought, there are multiple challenges that come with the responsibility of maintaining an expansive, world-class botanical garden that relies on the availability of water. True enough, The Huntington is fortunate to have access to the Raymond Basin aquifer that runs beneath the property. Yet recognizing the strict limits that have been set on that source to help ensure its future, The Huntington is determined to become a leader in water conservation and sustainability. While we are maintaining our beautiful gardens with significantly less water, we are learning a tremendous amount in the process.
Across Southern California, there have been great efforts to plant water-wise gardens over the past several years. During my time as president of Pitzer College, we converted much of the campus to a dry garden environment. At The Huntington, we’re focusing a great deal of attention on this as well. Yet the institution has long been committed to environmental sustainability in a broader sense. Many of the plants in our collections are endangered in their natural settings due to pollution, increased aridity, and development. Our work at The Huntington is devoted to protecting those increasingly rare species. Longtime botanical director Jim Folsom would be among the first to remind us: plants are the source of all life on the planet. Without the biological diversity that plants provide, we cease to exist. Yet, at a frightening pace, our global community is wiping out plants, species by species. At The Huntington, we take seriously our mission to counter this trend by cultivating, preserving, and propagating plants, and by conducting research and sharing our findings. This is the work of a botanical garden.
This past June, I had the good fortune to spend two weeks in Elmira, N.Y., as a scholar-in-residence at the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Quarry Farm. This is a lovely retreat where Twain spent 20 summers writing what would become his classic works of fiction. It rained every single day I was there. Overflowing rain gutters created rushing streams in the streets, reminding me that rain was not always a rarity at which to marvel. Growing up in Southern California, we used to enjoy stomping to school in our boots during storms. Sadly, with the current shortage of water in California’s aquifer, I can’t help but wonder if we are in a permanent state of water scarcity.
So how do we protect our plant collections while simultaneously managing our scant water resources? By working smarter; by determining how much water our most important collections need and rigorously maintaining those levels. Our lawns might be a bit browner, but they are not being neglected. At the president’s house, we’ll be putting in a beautiful low-water landscape, with a nod toward this region’s natural history and the plants that do best here. Jim reminds me that the best time to plant is in the fall, well past the brutal heat of summer. And so we wait. As we’ve seen from the stunning new gardens installed as part of the Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center, there are many exquisite possibilities. I look forward to sharing the outcome with all of you.
Laura Skandera Trombley, President