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A Guide to Five Hidden Treasures at Descanso Gardens

"Lost L.A.: Descanso Gardens" explores the history of one of Southern California's most beloved public gardens. From its pre-colonial origins as an oak woodland to its contemporary role as a living museum, the film examines how the Descanso Gardens reflects the social, political, and cultural evolution of Los Angeles.

Lost L.A.: Descanso Gardens

It began as a "Ranch of Repose" – and what was once known as Rancho del Descanso is now 160 acres of gardens where you can get lost among its flowers and trees, as well as its water features, arbors, and gazebos.

Because they’re all ripe for exploring.

Of course, most people visit Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge for the flowers – and what flowers it has! Camellias bloom for eight months out of the year, from October through May – and even in the dead heat of summer, you can catch roses, summer annuals and perennials, crape myrtle, and cassia. (Check the gardens’ Instagram for a real-time account of what’s blooming right now.)

But this public garden that was once a private estate holds plenty of secrets in its far-reaching corners – and to discover them, all you’ve got to do is open the right doors, follow the sound of a whistle, look up into the trees, and take the path less traveled by.

Here are five of the best ways to experience Descanso Gardens beyond its horticultural delights – and to find the treasures that may be hiding in plain sight.

1. Explore Its Founder’s Mansion

There's a reason why Descanso Gardens has the largest collection of camellias in all of North America, with over 700 species: E. Manchester Boddy. It started at the beginning of World War II, when the local Japanese gardeners and nursery owners who'd brought camellias to the States from the Far East were being “relocated” to internment camps, leading to the collapse of their industry. By that time, WWI veteran Boddy (pronounced "Bodie") had made himself into a successful publishing magnate as owner of a Los Angeles tabloid, the Daily News, making him wealthy enough to buy up all of the Camellia japonica he could find – tens of thousands of them, in fact, planted across 20 acres – and start his own horticultural business at Rancho del Descanso. But in 1953, Boddy had had enough of running a garden and sold his estate to the County of Los Angeles for use as a public park. The 12,000-square-foot mansion became Descanso Gardens' "Hospitality House," an art gallery and museum that garden visitors could, at one point, reach by tram. For decades, its library only ever opened to the public once a year for a holiday craft show -- until 1990, when it officially opened featuring a great number of Boddy’s personal papers and writings (loaned by his grandson), as well as some of his published works. Members of the Descanso Gardens Guild used it as an actual library back then, checking out various horticulture books of interest. After that, the house was used for everything from an office to a gift shop. But now, the former rancho mansion – rechristened “The Boddy House” – is more of a traditional house museum, with period-appropriate furniture and décor. You can explore the main level of the house, including the bay window where Boddy used to write and the rooms that interior designers spiffed up for the Pasadena Showcase House of Design in 2007, but the upstairs is closed to the public – leaving many of the mansion’s 22 rooms a mystery. Its garage next door, however, has been transformed into the Sturt Haaga Gallery, which presents a rotating roster of exhibits throughout the year.

Open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is free with garden admission.

Boddy House exterior
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
Boddy study
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Get Enchanted

There are actually two ways to experience some enchantment at Descanso Gardens, and neither one of them has anything to do with gnomes. Visit early enough in the day to ride the Enchanted Railroad, a 1/8th-scale model of a diesel train from 1960s/’70s. After your conductor calls “All aboard!”, you’ll chug along the 7 1/2" gauge rails through the oaks, over a bridge, and past the rose garden, giving you a nice overview of the western section as you encircle the Promenade and Nature’s Table. It’s somewhat of a hat tip to what the Rancho del Descanso could have become, since Walt Disney’s representatives had approached Manchester Boddy about developing the real estate while scouting locations for what ultimately became Disneyland. If tiny trains are less your thing, and you prefer exploring on foot to riding the rails, this holiday season you can take a mile-long walk through several themed lighting displays as part of the return of “Enchanted: Forest of Light.” In its inaugural year last year, you started your journey at tulips lit up in multiple colors, then walked through the rose garden under an origami canopy of stars, and took a toe-tapping journey through an interactive light display where a rainbow of colors would explode underfoot. The walk-through light show will return to Descanso Gardens for its second year in November 2017. As with last year, timed tickets must be purchased in advance and are separate from garden admission.

The Enchanted Railroad runs Tuesdays and Fridays 10 a.m. to noon and Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., pending weather. Tickets are available for purchase at the Visitor Center and are $3 per ticket or $25 for 10 tickets.

Descanso train ticket
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
Enchanted Railroad
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
Enchanted Railroad
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
Enchanted Forest
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
Enchanted forest
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
Enchanted Forest
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Become a Birder

Aside from a few Canadian geese rambling across the Main Lawn or through the Oak Woodland, and perhaps an American crow or two taking a drink from the Mission Fountain, the birdlife of Descanso may not be obvious at first. But if you listen carefully, you can isolate the calls of mourning doves, Western scrub jays, house finches and goldfinches – all of which are pretty abundant at the gardens. Be patient and walk softly to allow more ducks and geese emerge at the lake (amusing yourself by watching the red-eared slider turtles in the meantime). At lakeside, there’s a Bird Observation Station that was originally dedicated in 1961 at the behest of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, whose volunteer docents are sometimes stationed there to help visitors identify whatever fowl they might find. Descanso has just announced a project to revitalize the Bird Observation Station, waterfall, and surrounding area starting this month, so the area will be closed until it reopens in October – just in time for the fall migration along the Pacific Flyway. Descanso has also previously participated in Bird LA Day and has hosted educational events like last year’s Wildlife Symposium. If you decide to venture out on your own, your best bet is to linger among the coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), a keystone species that provides a rich habitat for many species of native and migratory birds. And if you aren’t sure that you could be seeing what you think you’re seeing, consult the garden’s bird checklist.

Bird box
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
Bird
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein

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4. Get In a Good Hike

The garden itself is a lot bigger than it may seem, with trails that run the entire extent of its boundaries, taking you all the way to its border fences and back. But though you can get a pretty good workout while covering just the four-mile nature trail inside of Descanso Gardens, there’s also a pretty interesting trail you can pick up outside the garden’s entrance. There, you can find the Descanso Trail, marked by a wooden fence and three yellow posts. It’s the work of the La Cañada Flintridge Trails Council, a member-supported organization that was formed in 1973 and currently manages and maintains 24 miles of trails in La Cañada Flintridge. After a slight wooded area, the trail almost immediately becomes vertical, with lots of switchbacks. You can get pretty high, pretty fast – until the trail (which is part of the City Loop) connects up with the Cherry Canyon Fire Road, which ends at a gate and meets up with some of the other trails in the designated open space area of Cherry Canyon (which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year). On this 90-minute hike, don’t get unnerved if you hear gunshots – you’ll be passing by a police firing range along the way. To complete the loop, you’ll have to walk along the city’s streets, past gated estates and landscaped lawns with no sidewalks, back to the Descanso Gardens parking lot. Be sure to pick up a to-go drink and snack before and/or after your hike at the Descanso Café.

Descanso trail
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
Views from the Descanso trail
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Bring the Garden Home With You

The Gift Shop and Plant Patio at Descanso Gardens isn’t your typical garden shop. In fact, it’s one of the best and most eclectic gift shops around. The best time of year to visit is during the Halloween and Christmas season. That’s when its inventory (which ranges from soap to socks, gadgets for gardening, gifts, and décor) expands even further to include even more things you never knew you just had to have. Whether you’re trying to attract birds, bees, or butterflies to your garden – or you hope to create a garden habitat that’s ripe for both fairies and secrets – you’ll find plenty of both practicality and whimsy here. It’s run by volunteers, and since Descanso Gardens is technically a “museum of living collections” that’s operated by the non-profit Descanso Gardens Guild, Inc., every purchase you make at the gift shop helps support their mission of offering people an experience that’s close to nature. In addition, the Horticulture Unit of Mt. San Antonio College in the City of Walnut in the Pomona Valley presents its annual plant sale there every April; and this past March, Descanso hosted the Tomatomania! festival for the second year in a row.

Open from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., every day except Christmas Day.

Descanso Gardens shop
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
Descanso shop
Photo by Sandi Hemmerlein

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