Living Wall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) in Exposition Park was established in 1913. With an extensive collection of over 35 million specimens, ranging from fossils and minerals to botanical and zoological specimens, it’s the largest museum of its kind in the western U.S. as well as a renowned research institution. One of the highlights is the Dinosaur Hall with its impressive displays, including the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex. Judging from the masses of humanity during our visit in November 2022, it’s the museum’s biggest draw.

Official greeters

The main reason why I wanted to visit the NHM weren’t the exhibits (which were fantastic, especially the Gem and Mineral Hall), but the gardens, especially after seeing photos on Loree Bohl’s danger garden blog. The biggest draw for me was the extraordinary Living Wall consisting of dry-stacked flagstone. It was created in 2012 as part of a $135 million expansion that included the transformation of two surface-level parking lots into 3½ acres of nature gardens.

The wall, like the gardens, was designed by Studio Mia Lehrer + Associates and installed by MATT Construction. According to this article, 3.2 million (!) pounds of Pritchard Flagstone from Montana were used to build the wall:

“Huge stones, used to provide architecture, direction and multi-functional structures, are obviously not native to their current location. They evoke images of paleontologists at work, perhaps making discoveries displayed right here at this very museum. Nearly vertical slices of rock have been assembled into strikingly beautiful walls that buttress embankments and form raised beds planted with butterfly- and bird-attracting native plants. Each piece is a few degrees off vertical; no piece is really parallel to another, and gaps are filled with smaller stones or planted with succulents. This ‘Living Wall’ has a slightly random, even chaotic look, as though it had been created by nature itself.”

Even at a distance, the Living Wall is a spectacular piece of hardscaping, easily the most impressive man-made stone wall I’ve ever seen. But it’s far more than just a pile of rocks; it’s valuable habitat for animals and plants alike. As the sign in the photo above says:

“A wall full of rocks with nooks and crannies makes a good home for shy, stealthy creatures. Looks for signs of life like spider webs and snail shells. Many kinds of plants thrive in these narrow spaces, too.”

I spotted quite a few succulents native to California happily growing the crevices, including prickly pears (Opuntia basilaris), barrel cacti (Ferocactus viridescens), and of course dudleyas (Dudleya pulverulenta, Dudleya hassei, Dudleya edulis, etc.).

Ferocactus viridescens, a small barrel cactus native to San Diego County

Dudleya pulverulenta

More dudleyas

Perennials, too... this Epilobium canum

The Living Wall is also home to many agaves, growing at the base or on top of it. The crevices in the wall would be awesome for smaller agaves, but I didn’t see any of those.

Agave desmetiana, several with flower stalks

Agave americana ‘Variegata’

Generally, I’m not a big fan of Agave americana, mostly because the clones you see in gardens offset so heavily and homeowners plant them in the wrong spots where they intrude on walkways, etc.

The Agave americana at the NHM, however, were glorious – beautifully symmetrical and impeccably maintained

Kalanchoe marnieriana growing in cracks under an Agave americana

Grapevine, too

Agave sisalana, Agave ‘Sharkskin’, and a dozen Agave victoriae-reginae

Agave shawii, one of the agaves native to California

A few more photos of Agave americana...

...just because there were so many of them

With interest in crevice gardens at an all-time high, it’s great to see the concept expanding beyond rock gardens with alpine plants to succulents and xeric perennials. Very few homeowners can afford an installation as massive as the Living Wall at the NHM, but smaller scale crevice gardens can be created in containers of just about any type or size. To find out more, read the groundbreaking 2022 book The Crevice Garden: How to Make the Perfect Home for Plants from Rocky Places by Kenton Seth and Paul Spriggs.

This post focuses on the Living Wall, but there’s far more to see in the Natural Gardens at the NHM, including a pond, meadow, urban wilderness, and an edible garden.

We visited in November, not prime time for most plants, so I didn’t bother taking any photos of the other garden areas. I hope to visit again in early summer when these gardens should be at their best.

© Gerhard Bock, 2024. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. Ah great memories of visiting this place, that wall did not disappoint. Glad you got to see it.

  2. I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't been to the museum in a long, long time, certainly well before the living wall was created. I'll have to drag my husband on a visit sometime soon.

  3. That wall begs for plants to be stuck in the crevices. I love it, will definitely visit the next time I'm in L.A.

  4. Love those big americana's. They have presence especially with the grapevine: a nice mix of soft and spikey. Crevice gardens are very popular in my area and we have been luck enough to have Paul come and talk to my local rock gardening club. He has a gorgeous garden in Victoria so would be worth contacting him when you go to visit your daughter. He is quite happy to show it off.

  5. What a nifty idea, and applied so well. The placement and growth of the plants combines the beauty of art with nature. It's been too many years since I've been out to L.A. (family out there and in San Diego). Next time I travel there, I'll have to make a plan to get to the NHM. Thanks.


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