During his 36-year tenure, Folsom presided over an era of unprecedented growth in the Botanical Gardens
SAN MARINO, Calif—The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens announced today that after 36 years of extraordinary leadership, James P. Folsom, the Marge and Sherm Telleen/Marion and Earle Jorgensen Director of the Botanical Gardens, will retire at the end of the year. Folsom’s retirement coincides with the culmination of one of his grandest projects: the completion of one of the largest and most beautiful Chinese gardens outside of China—Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance.
Throughout his Huntington career, much of Folsom’s effort has been devoted to educational and research programs that increase public understanding of the science, culture, and history of plants, and of the critical role plants play in sustaining life on Earth. He has also presided over an era of unprecedented growth and fundraising for botanical projects.
In 2020, Folsom was honored by the American Horticultural Society with its Liberty Hyde Bailey Award, the organization’s highest honor, for significant lifetime achievements in the field.
“Jim’s indelible imprint on The Huntington is everywhere,” said Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence. “It can be seen in the gardens he has built, the botanical collections he has developed, the relationships he has nurtured with donors, and in the passion for the natural world that he has shared enthusiastically through programs for young and old. Any description of his duties fails to capture the totality of Jim’s legacy, but it is anything but a platitude to say that his legacy lives on. We will miss the contributions of The Huntington’s one-of-a kind Pied Piper of botany.”
Folsom joined the Huntington staff in 1984 as assistant curator and was named director of the Botanical Gardens in 1987. Today, he oversees a staff of 81, charged with the stewardship, care, and interpretation of more than a dozen thematic gardens covering 130 acres of the 207-acre grounds and conducting research among the specialized plant collections. The property was once the home of Henry E. and Arabella Huntington, who, in creating their trust document in 1919, transformed their estate into the institution that bears their name.
Among the most notable achievements under Folsom’s leadership was his long-held vision of creating a garden to celebrate Chinese landscape traditions. That vision was realized in 2008 with the debut of the exquisite Liu Fang Yuan, originally 3.5 acres but now expanded to 15 acres. (The newest features in the Chinese Garden are set to open to the public on Oct. 9.) Enthusiastically supported by the local community, the project spanned 20-plus years and was an international partnership between Chinese and American architects, contractors, and craftspeople. The result is a world-class attraction that not only celebrates the height of Ming dynasty-era garden building, but also embodies the contemporary ideals of international cooperation and cross-cultural exchange. The total cost of the garden’s construction came to about $54.6 million, all of which was raised from individual, corporate, and foundation gifts.
The late Los Angeles philanthropist Frances Lasker Brody, a champion of the Botanical Gardens for decades, was an early supporter of the Chinese Garden. She worked closely with Folsom on numerous other projects over the years and ultimately bequeathed $120 million to the institution in 2010—a testament to the visionary zeal and passion for nature that Folsom inspires in others as well as to his skill as a fundraiser.
Folsom also spearheaded a multi-phase, $66-million Gardens Initiative from 1995 to 2000 to establish a botanical complex that would include a 16,000-square-foot greenhouse with interactive exhibits designed for children and families; classrooms and laboratories for botanical education and research; and other spaces. That initiative culminated with the opening of the Frances L. Brody Botanical Center, a complex that includes (among other features) two extremely popular spaces for hands-on learning: The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science, which opened in 2003, and the Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden, which debuted in 2004. (Folsom is quick to share credit with his advancement colleagues, including then Development Director Marylyn Warren, for the success of the Gardens Initiative.)
In 2011–2012, Folsom oversaw the renovation and expansion of the historic Japanese Garden, which was completed in time to mark the beloved landscape’s centennial. New features introduced during the renovation included a small ceremonial teahouse (donated by the Pasadena Buddhist Temple, restored in Japan, and reconstructed on a ridge at the top of the garden) and a formal tea garden to surround it. The Japanese Garden is currently being expanded further with the reconstruction of an authentic, 320-year-old magistrate’s house, donated by the family of its ancestral owners. The structure, originally located in Marugame, Japan, was disassembled and shipped to The Huntington earlier this year under Folsom’s direction.
Other significant gardens established during Folsom’s tenure are the Ranch Garden (2010), an urban agriculture project focused on sustainable gardening practices; the Brody California Garden (2014), a stunning six-acre landscape of drought-tolerant plants that greets visitors as they enter the gardens; and the Potager (2020), a so-called “kitchen garden,” planted with food crops, alongside a teaching space known as the Barry H. Herlihy Horticultural Pavilion.
Folsom also has expanded the botanical holdings through the acquisition of a number of invaluable plant collections that are significant for conservation. These include more than 5,000 orchids from the world-class collection of the late S. Robert Weltz, and an important collection of some 1,500 rare cycads bequeathed by Loran and Eva Whitelock. The cycads are now showcased in an expansive new planting, known as the Cycad Walk, that meanders over several acres.
Inspiring new audiences with the wonders of the plant kingdom has always been a key focus of Folsom’s work. With a bachelor’s degree in botany from Auburn University, a master’s degree in biology from Vanderbilt University, and a Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin, he brought botanical education at The Huntington to the forefront. Along with his staff, he has offered programs for teachers, students, and the public that reinforce the critical importance of plants to life on our planet. Whether presiding over the dissection of a corpse flower on Facebook Live for an unforgettable lesson in that rare plant’s reproductive cycle, leading a monthly botany lab for “citizen scientists,” or demystifying the yeasty science of bread-making in fragrant workshops in the demonstration kitchen, Folsom has always been one of The Huntington’s most engaging presenters and an inspiring advocate for the natural world.
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Thea M. Page, 626-405-2260,
About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, a collections-based research and educational institution, aspires to be a welcoming place of engagement and reflection for a diverse community. The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, Calif., 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Information: huntington.org or 626-405-2100. (Check huntington.org for updates during this period for new visitation protocols due to COVID-19.)