Home & Garden

Secluded and shady in Southern California

The signature arched bridge to the Japanese Tea House is reflected in one of the many streams in Descanso Gardens.
The signature arched bridge to the Japanese Tea House is reflected in one of the many streams in Descanso Gardens. PHOTOS BY CONNIE PILLSBURY

For the Central Coast resident who appreciates gardens, beauty and nature, a visit to the serene and peaceful Descanso Gardens in Southern California is definitely worth the three-hour drive.

Set in a natural bowl in the hills of La Cañada Flintridge, the 160- acre year-round botanical garden is internationally famous for its oaks, camellias, azaleas and roses. Just 14 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, the element of surprise at this lovely “urban retreat” never diminishes.

Many of us who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley remember family visits to this magical garden as children, with streams and forests that intrigued a child’s imagination. As adults, we return, passing along the love of Descanso to our children and grandchildren.

The secluded gardens are the site of North America’s largest camellia forest, situated on 20 acres, with 35,000 tree-size plants growing under the canopy of 150- year-old coast live oaks. The early spring visitor is surrounded by blooms as they meander along shady paths under the camellia trees.

Hidden within the camellia forest are an inviting Japanese Teahouse and Garden. Here, Japanese maples, azalea, bamboo and other plants from Asia gracefully border the rock garden, sand garden and koi-filled streams. It is easy to imagine you are in Japan as you walk over the arched bridge toward the “minka.”

For the native plant enthusiast, the nine-acre California Garden of Native Plants designed by Theodore Payne educates the visitor through labels on the many plants. Those who desire an adventuresome walk can explore the nature trails through the California Garden, featuring wildflowers, sage and native flowering shrubs

Birdwatchers head for the covered Bird Observation Station that overlooks a small lake. Considered one of the better birding locations in the area, it is also popular with grandchildren for spotting turtles, swans and ducks.

During the summer months, the International Rosarium with its 3,100 fragrant roses bursts with life and color. Theme gardens display old and modern roses, while trellised walkways and arbors treat visitors to cascades of climbing roses.

As if that weren’t enough, Southern California’s largest public collection of iris can be found near the rose garden. Blooms are at their peak during March through May, along with the collection of 500 lilacs, including “lavender lady,” which was developed by horticulturists at Descanso Gardens.

E. Manchester Boddy, publisher and owner of the Los Angeles Daily News, developed Descanso Gardens in 1937. Originally part of the 1784 Verdugo Rancho, Boddy named the property, “Rancho del Descanso,” which means “ranch of rest.”

At the top of the property, Boddy built a large home for his family, with views over the oaks and the San Gabriel Mountains. Interested in camellias, he began planting with the help of expert nurserymen. Boddy bought an additional 440 acres north of the property to provide fresh spring water for the gardens, which is still in use today.

The Boddy family sold the house and grounds to the county of Los Angeles in 1953, desiring to make the beautiful gardens accessible to the public. Boddy’s two-story Regency-style house is open to visitors, offering Heritage Exhibits, an art gallery and a unique opportunity to step into the elegance of a former era.

A pleasant way to accomplish this visit is to leave San Luis Obispo in the morning, and enjoy an outdoor box lunch at the Descanso courtyard cafe before beginning your walk through the gardens. The garden aficionado might plan to spend the night in Pasadena and tour the famous Huntington Gardens the next morning before returning home.

Connie Pillsbury is a freelance writer who lives

in Atascadero.

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