In June this year I had the pleasure of visiting three wonderful gardens in California — all of which I would strongly recommend for a leisurely and enjoyable visit. I will cover one apiece in this and two following articles.
Descanso Gardens is located in the foothills of the San Rafael Hills just 20 minutes north of Los Angeles International Airport. These gardens were owned by E. Manchester Boddy, a businessman and the publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News, which he founded in 1926. In 1937, Boddy bought 50 hectares of land in the city of La Canada. Two years later, he added another 16 hectares.
Boddy named his acquisition Rancho del Descanso (Ranch Where I Rest), and in 1938 he constructed a 22-room wooden mansion overlooking an oak wood on the site. To guarantee a continuous supply of water, he then bought 112 hectares of hillside to the north, from where he ran pipes from natural springs to irrigate the gardens. Thanks to his foresight, that system is still in use today.
However, the real development of the gardens did not begin until 1941, when Boddy began cultivating camellias in the dappled shade of the oaks. In 1948, he imported 20 cultivars of Camellia reticulata (to-tsubaki in Japanese) from Kunming Botanic Gardens in China. The gardens now also boast some 100,000 Japanese camellias, or yabu-tsubaki (C. japonica), which are one of its main attractions along with the Japanese garden and traditional Japanese-style house at the bottom of the camellia grove. The Camellia reticulata blooms from January through May.
Boddy was also a keen rose-grower. He hired a well-known rose hybridizer, Walter E. Lammerts, to create a “rose history garden.” While working at Descanso, Lammerts created roses such as Sunny June, Descanso Pillar and Bewitched. Without a doubt, though, his most famous Descanso rose is Queen Elizabeth, named to mark the 1952 accession of Queen Elizabeth II.
This floribunda, with pink flowers that bloom from summer through fall, is also popular with Japanese gardeners. Being very vigorous, though, it is not so suitable for smaller gardens, as it can reach more than 2 meters in height.
“The International Rosarium” was the name given to a new, 2-hectare rose garden created at Descanso in 1994. This contains a major collection of more than 4,000 specimens of the genus Rosa, including species and cultivars. The history of the rose is well documented here: Old garden roses and modern roses are cultivated together with plants that associate well with roses.
Japanese varieties are well represented, and for rose lovers a visit to this garden is a must. I saw an arch almost smothered with the white, single to semidouble blooms of Rosa cerasocarpa, which comes from west and central China.
Another in full bloom was the pink-blossomed American Pillar. This is a rambler and a hybrid. The cross was made in 1902 in America, but there is a Japanese connection: One of the parent breeds is the memorial rose, or Teriha-no-ibara (Rosa wichuraiana), native to Japan. The English name derives from its common cultivation on grave sites in the United States. In Japan, this evergreen, ground-hugging rose can be found from coastal areas up to 1,000 meters.
Descanso Gardens also includes a very important area devoted to California native plants. The California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) is the state’s only native palm, and its genus name commemorates George Washington. This palm grows to around 20 meters and, as the name suggests, its leaves are fan-shaped. Its natural distribution is from the San Andreas Fault to the Colorado Desert.
In the vicinity of this palm there is also a nice specimen of a California buckeye, whose botanical name is Aesculus California. This species of chestnut tree reaches just over 7 meters at most. Like all chestnuts, its leaves are compound, with each having five leaflets. Its flowers are white or pale pink and fragrant, although bees are poisoned by the nectar. A deciduous tree, it grows naturally in the moist soils of canyons and on hills in dense stands of bush and oak woodland. Long before settlers came along and upset the ecosystem, the indigenous people made flour from the poisonous seeds after leaching out the toxic element with boiling water. Seeds that were ground and untreated were thrown into pools and lakes, where they temporarily stunned the fish, which rose to the surface and were easily caught.
A little beyond the Californian garden there is a wood of native oaks. The coast live oak, or Quercus agrifolia, is an evergreen tree. This woodland is all that remains after a wildfire swept down from nearby hills in 1874. However, some of the oaks are reckoned to be 400 years old.
Fire is a key influence on the natural vegetation of Southern California, which is known as chaparral. Although this is a Basque term for scrub oak that grows naturally in the Pyrenees, when the Spanish adopted the word they spelt it “chaparro.” However, the Spanish explorers who came to this region changed both the name and meaning yet again. Today, the term chaparral is used to denote plant habits characterized by dense stands of bush, in which the coast live oak is one of the dominant tree species. This oak’s acorns were a dietary staple of the indigenous people, who, after removing the shells, ground the seeds into meal. This they washed to remove the bitter taste, then boiled into mush or baked in hot ashes as bread.
As they inhabit this region of frequent droughts and wildfires, many chaparral plants are evergreen and drought-resistant, and many shrubs are semi-dormant in summer. They also have a double-root system, with a deep one going way down in search of moisture and a secondary one of extensive lateral roots that absorb ephemeral moisture near the surface. Many also contain volatile resins that burn like gasoline. These plants’ seeds need fire to help them to regenerate. Unfortunately, however, the complete role of fires in Californian oak woodlands has not been subject to much study and is generally poorly understood.
Meanwhile, land around the gardens was developed over the years and houses built there. As a result, after repeated complaints from these new residents about visitor traffic, Boddy sold the gardens to the County of Los Angeles in 1953. After that, neglect led to declining attendances, prompting the county to consider selling the property. Then, 25 local residents came to the rescue and formed a nonprofit organization, the Descanso Gardens Guild, to preserve the gardens. In 1993, this guild was awarded a complete management role, and it has since helped to make the Japanese garden and traditional house, the rosarium and a bird sanctuary, among other features. It also offers internships for college students.
There is a four-hour “Day at Descanso” tour, costing $20, and in addition there will be a Japanese Garden Festival on Nov. 3 and 4, with highlights including taiko drumming, flute and koto music.