Descanso Gardens is a vibrant island of natural
beauty in a sea of urban development.
BY NANCY D. LACKEY SHAFFER
La Canada Flintridge is merely 20 miles from Downtown Los Angeles, but feels like an oasis of calm in the commotion of the Southern California metropolis. This city on the western edge of the San Garbriel Valley isn’t exactly untouched by urban development — Burbank, Pasadena and Glendale are fairly close by. Yet the modern world seems to take a backseat to the environment around it. With Angeles National Forest and the San Rafael Hills as borders, this is dry, scrubby, chaparral-dominated country. Yes, it’s home to distinctly civilized landmarks: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a topranked school district and the world’s first (supposedly) Frisbee golf course. But after driving through the belly of the beast that is the Hollywood-Burbank network of freeways, the traffic suddenly dwindles, stark hillsides rise all around and the beautiful and serene Descanso Gardens beckon. Nature lovers flock to this botanical garden’s diverse collection, which consists of 146 plant families thriving upon a hilly 160 acres. And it’s easy to see why: It offers a sense of the free and wild in the midst of the chaos of human civilization.
Nine distinct gardens are tended in Descanso’s bowl-shaped domain, entered from the Center Circle. Taking the eastern road on the left will bring you among Descanso’s most prized collection: hundreds of coast live oaks. Large, sprawling and majestic, they create a shady canopy over much of the gardens. Even at the height of summer, a walk under their long, twisted limbs is relatively cool and serene, particularly when a light breeze wafts by.
That shade is invaluable to Descanso’s other great claim to fame: the camellia trees. Many were planted in the 1940s by E. Manchester Boddy, publisher of the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News and founder of Descanso Gardens (which was originally his Rancho del Descanso estate). Today, more than 600 varieties in a rainbow of colors reside here, blooming from early autumn to spring. This is rumored to be the largest camellia collection in North America, and when the large, showy blossoms are at their most dazzling in January and February, they create a stunning display that livens up the dreariest winter.
A TRIP EAST . . . AND BACK IN TIME
The oaks and camellias dominate Descanso’s central section. The main road that skirts them to the east will take you past three gardens not to be missed. Encountered first is the Japanese Garden, with its arched bridge, koi pond, tea house and traditional minka or farmhouse. Plants here are native to Asia, and include camellias, azaleas, black pines, mondo grass and Japanese maples. There are also plum and cherry trees, which burst into splendid blossoms in the spring.
The sound of birdsong and a babbling brook add to the Zen-like atmosphere. Set off on its own east of the Japanese Garden is the lovely Lilac Garden, a network of meandering paths and plants that are best appreciated in March and April, when the festive, fragrant flowers bloom.
Interested in some botanical time travel? Head deeper into the property on the main road to find the Ancient Forest, so named for its ginkgo, ferns and cycads — some of the oldest examples of flora on planet Earth, dating back to the Jurassic period. Numerous benches are tucked among this shady jungle, where you can sit a spell and breathe in the rich scent of redwood trees. Rest assured knowing that no dinosaur will disturb your quietude.
THE BODDY HOUSE
The road gets steeper and sunnier as it climbs up towards the Boddy House and Hilltop Gardens, on the crest of the hill. When Boddy purchased the land that would become the Rancho del Descanso in 1937, he hired “architect to the stars” James Dolena to build his residence: a 12,000-square-foot, 22-room mansion designed in the Hollywood Regency style. Today, it acts as an event space, interpretive center and location for workshops, lectures and other programming.
The former garage has been transformed into the Sturt Haaga Gallery, which opened in 2011 and offers three exhibitions a year. There’s plenty of natural art to observe outside, too: The adjacent grounds are now the Erskine Garden, with vertical gardens, a rooftop garden and water permeable hardscaping.
Stone steps will lead up the terraced hillside to Hope’s Garden (named for benefactor Hope Tschopik Schneider), filled with Mediterranean plants and an olive grove. A steep hiking trail climbs for quite a ways before reaching the olives; sturdy shoes with good traction are a must here — and watch out for poison oak!
WILD AT HEART
There are a few options for descending the hill from Boddy House. The paved road to the far left (west) is more even, less steep and skirts the camellia forest. The more adventurous route follows a set of stairs and a meandering path through the camellias and oaks — steeper, but shadier. Both will take you to the Oak Grove, home to the oldest (300-500 years) trees on the grounds. These elder coast live oaks are the direct descendants of those that once blanketed the nearby San Rafael Hills, and Los Angeles itself.
Further on is the expansive, eight-acre California Garden. The state’s native plants reign in this sunny, rugged section designed by renowned horticulturalist Theodore Payne. Palo verde trees, California poppies, ceanothus, Matilija poppies and other local species bloom in spring and summer.
After looping around the California Garden, continue on to the Oak Woodland, where trees, meadow and chaparral come into harmony to showcase the native landscape of the Los Angeles Basin.
Descanso’s western edge is dominated by a large lake, which serves as habitat for numerous species. Adirondack chairs are neatly arranged around the north side, to take advantage of the shade, pretty view and cool breeze. The nearby Lakeside Lookout is an excellent spot to observe the ducks, turtles, juncos, green herons, California scrub jays and other species that visit or reside in the area.
BED OF ROSES
Walking back towards the Center Circle from the lake, you’ll follow a gurgling stream (with a small waterfall) that feeds the small but charming Mulberry Pond, a favorite spot to take a break and let youngsters look for fish, birds and other critters.
The pond is a waypoint en route to the northwest corner’s main attraction: the five-acre Rose Garden. In spring and summer, it is a riot of color, thanks to 1,600 rose varietals, old and new, which represent centuries of horticultural history. But this is a special place any time of year, as the companion plants (daffodils, irises, pink ladies and more) and flowering trees ensure that something is blooming in nearly every season.
The most manicured of Descanso’s spaces, this garden offers a European charm, with a large stone fountain, a wrought iron gazebo and arched walkways that become verdant tunnels at the right time of year. Stone benches, animal statuary, a hedge labyrinth and the natural tent of the weeping mulberry tree are particularly delightful for frolicsome children.
LAND OF ENCHANTMENT
From wide-open spaces to arboreal hideaways to arts enclaves and fragrant floral fantasy lands, Descanso Gardens has something to enchant just about everyone. Moments from LA, but worlds apart from the traffic, noise and stress of the concrete jungle — the antidote to civilization, Southern California style.
The most direct route from Ventura County takes you through the oft-gridlocked 101 and 134 freeways. Consider instead the 126 heading east, which will take you to the 5 south and then the 210 east — skirting the worst of the Hollywood-Burbank traffic. It might add a few miles, but you’ll probably make up for it in time…and stress.
Visitors are not allowed to bring food onto the property, but there is a small picnic area outside of the main entrance. On site, Cafe Descanso provides fresh and delicious sandwiches, salads and the like. Or, consider dining at the more upscale Maple (open weekends only; reservations recommended).
Descanso Gardens hosts a number of special events throughout the year. Mark your calendars for these current and coming attractions:
Shine a Light, through Oct. 27 Works by artist-in-residence Carole Kim, including photography, poetry and a multimedia installation. On exhibit in the Sturt Haaga Gallery.
SILENCE, Sept. 7, 21, 28 A concert series offering three nights of experimental music under the oaks. Tickets: $30-37.
Japanese Garden Celebration, Oct. 12-13 Celebrating Japanese art and culture with the art of flower arranging, crafts, taiko drummers and other entertainment. Free with admission.
Carved, Oct. 23-27 Take a one-mile walk at night through the camellia forest and oak grove to view 1,000 professionally carved pumpkins. View artists at work Oct. 19-23. Advance tickets required; $30.
Enchanted Forest of Light, Nov. 17-Jan. 25 The garden is bathed in glowing, multicolored hues for the holidays, offering a series of immersive, sometimes interactive, lighting experiences. Tickets: $23-30.
1418 Descanso Drive, La Canada Flintridge 818.949.4200 www.descansogardens.org