Descanso Gardens – La Cañada Flintridge

Completing The Southern California Garden Trifecta

Image - Version 2Descanso Gardens – La Cañada Flintridge

A few Sundays ago, in early March, Tracy said it was high time we finished our “Garden Trifecta.”  We’ve spent a lot of time at the The Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens in San Marino and the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Gardens in Arcadia, however there was still one more nearby floral mecca to check out before we could be considered true local flower power aficionados.  This would finally be the day.

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It had been nearly a decade since we had been to Descanso Gardens in La Cañada, and it was just as beautiful as we remembered it from our last visit. Descanco Gardens has quite an interesting history, which we learned from our chatty and informative tour guide later in the morning.

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In 1937, E. Manchester Boddy, who was the publisher and owner of the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, purchased the land that is today Descanso Gardens. He paid the “whopping” price of $125,000 for 165 acres. He named the working ranch “Rancho Descanso” (Ranch Of Rest).

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He hired famed architect James Dolena (“Architect To The Stars”) to produce a 12,000 square-foot, two-story home with incredible views of the San Gabriel Mountains.

P1000557The camellias that dot the landscape were planted during World War II when Boddy purchased nearly 100,000 camellia plants (at a significantly reduced price) from his friends at Mission Nursery (F.W. Yoshimura) and Star Nursery (F.M. Uyematsu…below), who were being sent to Japanese internment camps.

uyematsu_smOur tour guide told us that in March 1950, Boddy was convinced to open his ranch to the public for one weekend only so they could view his gardens.  8,000 people attended the first day and there was such a ruckus that he did not open it again to the public until 1951, this time charging $1 admittance fee for people over 12 years old to keep the crowd down (to put that in perspective, gas at the time was $0.20 per gallon).

P1000516“Today, on a really busy day, Descanso has about 3,000 visitors, so 8,000 would be unimaginable, especially back then when there was no parking available and people just parked in the neighbors’ yard or on the side of the road,” our guide said.  In 1953, Boddy sold the property to the county of Los Angeles for $1.2 million. In 1993, Descanso Gardens became an independent entity.

P1000491Tracy and I arrived on this hot Sunday a little after 10 a.m. and after checking out the gift store and its colorful Easter bunnies, we set out to explore on our own before the walking tour started at 11. tn-vsl-me-descansofire-pg-002There used to be a tram tour, but all of Descanso Gardens’ vehicles were destroyed in a fire in 2014 (photo above from lacanadaonline).

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We first came across some Crabapple trees planted in a unique manner near the Magnolia Lawn.

P1000493The trees, planted in a criss-cross manner, were used as a fence to help keep the deer out, which, I suppose, could have made them a tad crabby.

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The Magnolias were in full bloom with lovely shades of pink and purple (you can tell Tracy helped me with these descriptions), and we meandered by the Lilac Garden, which was created from just a single hybrid (Lavender Lady) back in 1953.  Now there are 400 plants representing more than 250 varieties (that Lavender Lady got around).

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We also ran into some friendly (I think) ducks).

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Next stop was the Japanese Garden, where Tracy and I got our Zen on. There’s the requisite arched bridge (a staple for any Japanese garden worth its Plum and Cherry trees), a Full Moon Tea House complete with blue roof tiling imported from Japan and a koi-filled stream.

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They seemed to be coy koi at first, but we played our carps correctly, and they eventually showed their true colors to us.

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Spying a sign for the Boddy House, we headed into a wooded forest area.

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There we saw some colorful Clivia, a flower native to Southern Africa and Swaziland. Obviously, these Clivia were here on vacation.

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We continued on our tranquil stroll.

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The hot weather of the previous two weeks had sadly diminished the Camellia population.

P1000512We saw a couple of lonely Camellias before realizing it was nearly time for the guided tour…

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…so we scurried back through more lovely scenery…

P1000522….to our meeting place at the Center Circle Garden, a garden that is changed out every two years.

IMG_0677When we arrived, there was our guide and two people waiting to take the tour.  The other couple didn’t last very long, so for the next 90 minutes Tracy and I received a private guided tour of Descanco Gardens from our guide Jim…sweet!

geneAnd for Blazing Saddles fans, yes, his friends call him “Jim.”

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The first thing Jim pointed out was a tree with lots of fruit that did not look familiar. The reason: the Chinotto (sour) Orange Tree is native to Southern Italy and Malta.  My ears perked up when we were told that the fruit was part of the ingredient (a flavoring agent) in the making of Campari. Remember my motto: “You’ll never be sorry with another Campari!”

P1000580Then, we stopped at a signal on the grounds…a train was coming through. Not just any train, mind you, but this was The Enchanted Railroad.

P1000533It seems that when the movie ‘Congo’ (don’t worry, I’ve never heard of it either) was being filmed at Descanso Gardens, movie producer Kathleen Kennedy and director Frank Marshall donated this train to the facility.

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For three bucks you can ride around a section of the grounds near the Promenade. As Jim put it, “It’s for the young…and young at heart.”

P1000528Then we headed into a maze of amazing colors. We were tiptoeing past the tulips.

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The only thing missing was Tiny Tim (the singer, not the little guy from A Christmas Carol).

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It seems Jim had received a call from one of his best customers earlier in the day, who also happens to be famous. The woman caller said she was distressed to hear the tulips were no longer in bloom.  She didn’t have to call a policewoman, because she WAS Police Woman.

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Jim then told Angie Dickenson not to worry. The tulips were still blooming and colorful, and he said for her to come out and see for herself the tulips in all their splendor.

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Each year, Descanso Gardens plants 25,000 tulip bulbs, and photographers were out in force trying to capture every angle.

P1000546We kept on walking, and by now the day was officially sweltering…..but everything from old trees…

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…to beautiful plants and flowers (plus Jim’s commentary) kept our minds off the heat.

P1000543We passed by the 5-acre Rose Garden installed in the 1940s, but it was a month too early to see anything of note. If you love roses, come back here between mid-April and mid-May (I’ll be back to shoot some photos).

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There are more than 3,000 varieties, including the famed Chrysler Imperial (gas mileage may vary) and the Queen Elizabeth (not sure about its crown, however). You can rent out the rose pavilion for weddings.

P1000549Next up, on our left, was a bird observation station where the Audubon Association leads occasional tours (for members only).

P1000551Beyond the bird observation station is a pond fed by a spring from the nearby mountains.  Boddy purchased a property in the mountains with a spring and ran a 4” line from the spring all the way to Descanso (under Foothill Blvd.) so he would always have a source of water for his ranch. They used to boat on the pond, and there are plans to have a walkway built around it in the coming years.

P1000554The former dumping area has been reclaimed and Descanso opened a native garden area in October 2014. The walk continued.

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We particularly enjoyed the Ray Hartmond Blue Lilac tree (available at Theodore Payne Nursery in Sun Valley).

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For the next ten to minute minutes we just walked and listened to Jim tell us about good restaurants in Spain (looking for some inside info for our upcoming trip)…

P1000570…and just enjoyed the peacefulness of the area.

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It’s hard to “get away from it all” in Los Angeles, but Descanso Gardens affords you that opportunity.

P1000526Our tour continued along the back of the gardens where we saw a Bird of Paradise that looked like it might be on its last wings.

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Up ahead was a Stonehenge-like pattern of rocks. I read the sign, which stated something about spirals. Thinking this was a football display I read on. However when I got to the word “geometry,” I knew it would be fruitless to understand since I barely passed that class in high school.

P1000572We walked by Fern Grotto…

P1000578…to the Boddy House, which was restored in 2007 when it was the Pasadena Showcase House.   The Showcase House spent more than $1 million restoring and decorating the former home of the Boddys.

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From the website: “Working with Showcase volunteers, interior and exterior design firms completely rehabilitated and restored the Boddy House, bringing it back to life in a contemporary re-interpretation of its original Hollywood Regency style.”

P1000520There was also a short movie about the history of the gardens and Mr. Boddy.  Among other things, Boddy hung out with stars and unsuccessfully ran for California senator in 1950 (didn’t Dianne Feinstein start that year?).

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From a 2004 story in the Los Angeles Times: “During World War II, Boddy suggested in an editorial that the Allies smuggle rubber out of Malaya for the war effort. They followed his advice…to the tune of 300 tons…and Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart starred in a 1949 movie, ‘Malaya,’ based on Boddy’s screenplay.”

P1000518The home is also available for weddings.  The former garage has been converted to an art gallery thanks to a generous donation of the Sturt (seems his family forgot to buy a vowel or accidentally added it to their last name) Haaga family.  The art gallery was a part of the tour we could have missed.  It had something to do with light, but it was readily apparent I didn’t see the light in the project.

P1000558We walked back through the expansive grounds, passed the gift shop and a cafeteria with outdoor seating.

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That was it for our third great garden that is located within a half hour of our home.


Boddy said something quite prophetic in a 1964 interview on the TV program ‘Ralph Story’s Los Angeles.’  “The gardens will be remembered long after the Daily News and all the other newspapers in Los Angeles, perhaps, are forgotten.”

Descanso Gardens
1418 Descanso Drive
La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011
Hours: Daily 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. except Christmas (last entry at 4:30)
Phone: 818.949.4200 • Parking: Free
Admission: General $9 • Seniors/Students $5 • Children 5-12 $4 Children under 5 and Guild members are free
Enchanted Railroad: $3 per rider, $25 for a book of 10 tickets. Regular hours of operation are 10 am to noon Tuesday & Friday; and 10 am to 4 pm Saturday & Sunday. Tickets are sold at the Visitor Center.
The Boddy House is open daily except Mondays from 10 am to 4 pm.

Take the 2 North and exit at Verdugo Boulevard.
Turn RIGHT onto Verdugo Boulevard. Verdugo Hills Hospital will be on your right.
Turn RIGHT at Descanso Drive.
Entrance is on your RIGHT side.

Take the 210 West and exit at Angeles Crest Highway.
Turn LEFT onto Angeles Crest Highway.
Turn RIGHT on Foothill Boulevard.
Turn LEFT at Verdugo Boulevard.
Turn LEFT at Descanso Drive.
Entrance is on your RIGHT SIDE.

Take the 210 East and exit at Angeles Crest Highway.
Turn RIGHT onto Angeles Crest Highway.
Turn RIGHT on Foothill Boulevard.
Turn LEFT at Verdugo Boulevard.
Turn LEFT at Descanso Drive.
Entrance is on your RIGHT SIDE.

Take 134 East to the 2 North
Take the 2 North and exit at Verdugo Boulevard.
Turn RIGHT onto Verdugo Boulevard. Verdugo Hills Hospital will be on your right.
Turn RIGHT at Descanso Drive.
Entrance is on your RIGHT side.


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