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Folsom to Retire From the Huntington

Jim Folsom announced that he will retire from the Huntington Library on Dec. 31.

The word “retirement” was not on the mind or lips of Jim Folsom. Instead, he chose another word that suggests transition.
“I’m finally graduating,” said the typically ebullient Folsom. “I have been at this school of learning for 36 years, and I don’t know what I will do when I grow up.”
Folsom will have three more months to consider that challenge before he steps away from his current role as the Marge and Sherm Telleen/Marion and Earle Jorgensen director of the Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library on Dec. 31.
“I will turn back into a pumpkin,” Folsom said, referencing a recent community project he has undertaken alongside San Marino’s 101-year-old giant pumpkin grower Mae Powell.
When the requisite jokes and quips are cast aside, Folsom will be remembered as a true giant in the industry.
“Jim’s indelible imprint on the Huntington is everywhere,” said Huntington President Karen 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.”
Earlier this year, 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.
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 that cover 130 acres of the 207-acre grounds. 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.
Folsom’s retirement coincides with the culmination of one of his grandest projects: the completion of one of the largest Chinese gardens outside of China — Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance.
It was under Folsom’s leadership that his long-held vision of creating a garden to celebrate Chinese landscape traditions was developed. 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 Friday, Oct. 9. The project spanned 20-plus years and was an international partnership between Chinese and American architects, contractors and craftspeople. 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.
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.
Folsom also spearheaded a multi-phase $66-million gardens initiative from 1995-2000 to establish a botanical complex that would include a 16,000-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 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.
In 2011-12, Folsom oversaw the renovation and expansion of the historic Japanese Garden, which was completed in time to mark the 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 6-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.
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, Folsom 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 a 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 advocates for the natural world.
“The time has come,” said Folsom, whose retirement coincides with that of his wife, Debra, who is wrapping up a career at Pasadena City College where she taught botany and biology. “Our interests will not change. Our curiosity to learn and explore will remain. It will be up to new generations of thought and leadership to decide what direction the gardens will take.”
The Folsoms expect to spend some time at a home in the Florida Panhandle and a small farm in Missouri.
“We are going to be leisure suit people, driving around in an Airstream trailer,” Folsom quipped. “I hope our health holds up.”


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