Descanso Gardens: a Lesson in Citizens’ Action

The development of Descanso Gardens, La Canada, California, is a lesson for those who feel the need to rescue civic amenities from neglect.

There are beautifully grown delphiniums to be seen against a field of gazanias. Author’s photographs.

There are beautifully grown delphiniums to be seen against a field of gazanias. Author’s photographs.

The crowd passing through the turnstile at Descanso Gardens seemed a fair cross section of the Los Angeles population. Why had they come? What were they looking for? Couples take narrow paths to secret places; parents push wheel-chairs between broad beds of bright flowers; eager young men with bouncing cameras search for subjects among the ducks and the delphiniums; teachers explain endlessly to upturned faces full of wonder; bent and elderly bodies subside gratefully onto sun-warmed benches. All seem happy and to have found what they came for. For this they should thank the patient and determined volunteers who helped retain Descanso as a public garden when its future looked black, and who now strive to maintain and improve it. Their efforts will reach a climax in the near future, with the completion of a new administration and education building. Over a million dollars has been raised for this and construction is well advanced.

The special quality of Descanso Gardens comes from its origin as a private garden. The collections and original special features are varied and not designed for public use. Despite the overall size of the gardens the scale is often personal rather than public. In time, no doubt, this aspect will change as the need is felt to accommodate more visitors. Meanwhile, it is possible to enjoy the gardens, in places, as though they were one’ s own.

In 1869 over 36,000 acres of land adjacent to the Los Angeles River between the Pueblo of Los Angeles and the Arroyo Seco, once owned by the Verdugo family, was sold and subdivision began. In 1937 E. Manchester Boddy, owner of the Los Angeles Daily News, purchased the remaining 165 acres. He built a house here and later added 460 acres of watershed land in the mountains to the north. He called it Rancho del Descanso. The Spanish descanso means rest or repose.

Mr. Boddy appointed a curator, J. Howard Asper, a camellia specialist, and began to make a garden on the ranch. Thousands of camellias were planted — 100,000, it is said — and it is now thought to be the largest collection in the world. Over 600 species and cultivars are represented.

The well-known hybridizer of plants, Walter Lammerts, was also engaged by Boddy. Dr. Lammerts bred such famous roses as ‘Chrysler Imperial’, ‘Queen Elizabeth’ and ‘Golden Showers’. He also influenced camellia growing in this country by introducing from China many plants previously unknown here. At Descanso Dr. Lammerts developed a rose garden, five acres in extent, of about 6,000 plants. It included a historical section of roses cultivated in the most ancient gardens and in gardens of all periods up to the present. In it can also be seen the All-American Rose Selection award winners since 1940.

Walter Lammerts’ lilacs flower regularly at Descanso Gardens.

Walter Lammerts’ lilacs flower regularly at Descanso Gardens.

Lilacs were hybridized in the garden by Walter Lammerts. These are plants usually considered to be at their best where winter is severe. Dr. Lammerts bred them for southern California conditions and a grove of a hundred plants remains as testimony to his success.

Decoration in Heritage House.

Decoration in Heritage House.

Mr. Boddy retired as publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News in 1953 and decided to dispose of the property. He offered it to Los Angeles County as a botanical garden, and arrangements were made for the transfer of ownership under a four-year plan of lease and option to purchase. For the next four years, under the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, Descanso Gardens remained in limbo; policy for their maintenance and use was not developed. Receipts from admissions were small because few knew of the Gardens. The County Authority was under pressure to abandon the project when, in 1957, the situation began to improve. A group was formed which was to become the Descanso Gardens Guild Inc., a non-profit organization whose objects are the protection and development of the Gardens. The group urged the completion of the purchase of the Gardens and successfully petitioned the County Supervisors to place them under the Department of Arboreta and Botanic Gardens for a three-year trial period. The Guild then set out to gain interest in and support for the Gardens through garden clubs, horticultural societies and civic groups. Money was raised to stimulate attendance through gardening classes, art exhibits and special events of all kinds. Results were remarkable. Figures rose steadily from 1954 when attendance was about 25,000. Now over 210,000 people visit the Gardens each year. The activities are planned and directed from Hospitality House, built as his home by Mr. Boddy in the 1930s. It is a handsome and inviting mansion buzzing with activity, where meetings, luncheons, exhibitions and demonstrations are held. It also provides offices for Descanso Guild, a horticultural library, a gift shop and an apartment for the caretaker who is also the senior tour guide for the Garden. Space at Hospitality House, then, is at a premium and it is no wonder that a new building is needed.

An impression of the interior of the new building and its lofty ceiling.

An impression of the interior of the new building and its lofty ceiling.

The new building is to be a little to the east of the present gate house, and its construction will disturb not one tree or shrub in the Gardens. The architect, Barry A. Berkus of Santa Barbara, describes his design as in the early Pasadena style of Green and Greene. The heavy gabled roof is distinctive and functional; it supports special heat absorbing tiles and allows lofty open ceilings to be used in­side. Solar energy is expected to provide more than 80% of the heating and cooling of the building.

Architect’s impression of the new entrance and education building at Descanso Gardens.

Architect’s impression of the new entrance and education building at Descanso Gardens.

Entrance to the Gardens will be through the new building in a setting more appropriate than that in use at present. Beyond the entrance, visitors, whether gardeners or not, find more to interest them than the roses, camellias and lilacs for which Descanso is famous. There are many azaleas and other rhododendrons. Twenty-five acres of live-oak woodland remain more-or-less as nature left them, where birds and animals can be seen. Beside a pool is a tea house where refreshments are served, and a gift shop. These buildings and the garden surrounding them are in the Japanese style.

Pride of California, Lathyrus splendens, in the native plant garden at Descanso.

Pride of California, Lathyrus splendens, in the native plant garden at Descanso.

Near a stone bridge over a stream, many kinds of ferns can be seen, and there is an orchid dell where 200 cymbidiums grow. The garden of California native plants is over seven acres in extent, and is a lesson for gardeners with an eye to the future. From examples such as this we may learn how to rid our gardens of the ostentation of exotic plants.

There is no month of the year when a visit to Descanso Gardens would not give pleasure, but of course, January and February are peak months for camellias; March and April have many trees in flower; in May the roses give of their best. To find out about guided tours of the Gardens and the many special events there, such as the Spring Garden Show from April 3 through 18, call (213) 790-5414.