One of the more intriguing ways to experience the world outside of Southern California without actually leaving it is by visiting its many gardens. But all too often, the big botanic gardens with their marquee-value names get all the glory – which means when you visit, you've got to fight the crowds there. And sure, visit Descanso during the camellia bloom. Attend the open-air concerts at the Arboretum. Take a sniff of the corpse flower at The Huntington.
But you've got lots more options – some with less acreage, but just as much history.
Here are six great gardens, each with their own special take on horticulture and landscaping.
1. Gardens of the World, Thousand Oaks
While some gardens are devoted to one culture, others take you on a transatlantic journey. At Gardens of the World, you can visit France, England, Italy, and Japan without walking very far – past a cascading waterfall, ornamental flower beds, a rose garden, artichoke plants, a tea house, cypress trees, and a "chain" fountain. But as a reminder that you are still in California, you’ll end your whirlwind tour in the Mission Courtyard for a quick trip back in time to our golden state’s early days. Gardens of the World is free and open all year except on days with inclement weather – and you don't have to worry about running into a wedding or other private party, because they’re generally not allowed. The gardens do make a lovely backdrop for photos, but special permission is needed for engagement photos, wedding photography, and the like.
2. Virginia Robinson Gardens, Beverly Hills
Like The Huntington, you get a two-fer when you visit Robinson Gardens: a landmarked garden paradise and a grandiose estate (one of the first Beverly Hills mansions) sprawling across six acres behind The Beverly Hills Hotel. You can forget about encountering native species here, because every corner of the garden is about making a statement, from the rose garden to the Italian Terrace Garden and the Australian King Palm Forest. And to what do we owe this opulence? Why, it's the fortune of the Robinson family – of Robinsons Department Store, the last vestige of which has been swept away from behind the Beverly Hilton, between Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevards. The garden is open to the public once a year for its annual garden tour / luncheon / fashion show / awards ceremony, which acts as a benefit for the volunteer-run facility. But you can visit for a docent-led tour pretty much any time of year by appointment at least two weeks in advance. Better to plan even farther ahead if you can, since it takes them a while to return calls and emails.
3. Arlington Garden, Pasadena
Arlington Garden is a small, almost pocket park tucked away on a residential street in Pasadena just off Millionaire's Row. There are Mediterranean and Californian trees and succulents planted throughout its three acres, where the historic Durand House once stood. It was a kind of French chateau by way of the San Gabriel Valley, with a tropical paradise out front, but once its contents were sold at public auction after John Durand's death in 1961, the house was razed. Ultimately, CalTrans ended up using the vacant lot as a staging area for its construction projects nearby, until 2005 when a committee of historians, preservationists, and naturalists took on the task of recreating the gardens – and even uncovered some of the original red sandstone from the exterior of the mansion. Now, the garden is decidedly public, open every day, and free to visit – as well as the only public park of its kind in Pasadena.
4. The Japanese Garden, Van Nuys
Reopening soon, this "garden of water and fragrance" has all the elements of a traditional Japanese garden: water, rocks, and plants that have been preened and pruned to perfection. There are also a variety of carved granite lanterns and, of course, the best view of the Tillman Plant's Administration Building, which Trekkies know as Starfleet Academy and make pilgrimages to see. But what's probably most interesting about this garden is where it gets its water from: from a three-tiered waterfall fed by the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant next door. If there's any question as to the safety of the treated toilet water coming out of the plant, just look at the thriving flowers, the flocking birds (like great blue herons, pelicans and cormorants), and the fish (including koi) swimming around in the water, eventually being eaten by the birds. Despite its next-door neighbor, the garden evokes the serenity of traditional Japanese strolling gardens and the traditions of generations of Zen Buddhists with a tea house, very few straight lines, and cherry blossoms. Stroll across the zig-zag bridge to rid yourself of any evil spirits that might be tagging along. And if you love this one, make the pilgrimage out to Pasadena for the newly-reopened Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden, which is currently under renovation and open for limited public tours.
5. Amir's Garden, Griffith Park
Amir's Garden is one of Griffith Park’s lesser-known wonders, located high above the Griffith Park Boys Camp near Mineral Wells. This volunteer-run ornamental garden is a shady oasis from the sun-soaked pathways of the city's largest urban park, where hikers, equestrians, and horses alike come for a free rest stop. Here, you can find leafy trees, flowering plants, jade and other succulents, and various other ornamental plantings – all regularly watered, pruned, and generally cared-for. There's a labyrinth of paths that lead you through the hillside portion of the garden, with vertigo-inducing "secret stairs" that you can take up or down, as well as a number of benches and picnic tables where you can take a load off. For garden aficionados, it's not just a stopover point, but a destination in and of itself.
6. Moorten Botanical Garden, Palm Springs
If any place were an example of how some living things really do thrive in the desert, this is it. At Moorten Botanical Garden, you get a specialized, curated selection of more than 3000 desert plants separated by their natural habitats (mostly, the Americas – Mojave Desert, Sonoran Desert, Mexico, etc.), including cacti, agaves, and even ironwood trees. Watch cactus flowers bloom in the sun while you stand in the shade, and poke your head into their "Cactarium" greenhouse of rare plants like "Old Man" and "Old Woman" cacti with their unkempt gray coiffures. It's not a huge botanic garden, so it doesn’t take a lot of time to hit everything – which you'll want to do, since it also includes a field of lava rock and a pile of pioneer relics. You're likely to see plants here you've never seen at any other botanic garden – and if you really love one, you might be able to buy it and take it home with you, as long as you live in a climate that can sustain it.
Note: This article has been updated June 29, 2021 to reflect the latest available information.