Thursday, May 21, 2015

Descanso Gardens: The Original California

What was California like originally, before the advent of pavement? What was the land like for the native people who first lived here?

You can find the answer at Descanso Gardens, a 160-acre parkland located 20 minutes north of Pasadena, in the foothills of the steeply rising San Gabriel mountains. Much of this land preserves the original forest of Coast live oaks, a reminder of a forest that once blanketed the region from Mondocino County along the Coast Ranges down to northern Baja California. The Tongva people who made this region their home relied on acorns as an important food source. Some of the oaks at Descanso are hundreds of years old, and gigantic in size, forming a lofty canopy stretching for acres. The name Descanso means 'rest' in Spanish, and it is very restful to the spirit to wander in the shade of these giants.

These giant Coastal oaks are breathtaking.

Notice that the shapes are taller than the oaks commonly seen inland,
and the trees grow closer together.

There are several other sections of the gardens. Importantly, one huge section, that would require a serious hike to appreciate, is an oak woodland—a mix of woodland, meadow and chaparral plants that recreates the heritage landscape of the Los Angeles Basin. This undeveloped area is important for the ecology of Descanso.

One of the most fully realized sections is the Japanese Garden. A lengthy section of a natural stream has been planted in the Japanese manner and stocked with koi. It has the usual arched bridge and wooden tea-house.

The children are fascinated by turtles swimming among the koi.
Turtle and koi
A zen garden within the Japanese Garden
Some of the other gardens are less impressive. Granted the area is going through a drought, and admittedly our visit was not the ideal timing for roses, lilacs, or camellias, nevertheless the flower gardens were in much better shape at the nearby LA County arboretum, which we visited a few days later. Still, it was pleasant to stroll from the California Natives Garden to the edible garden, and Descanso is a favorite spot for friends to meet for a peripatetic chat. There is also a popular café, which we didn't visit, and a cutesy gift shop.

Descanso Gardens was founded in the late 1930s by E. Manchester Boddy, former owner of Los Angeles Daily News. He commissioned a prominent architect to build a 22-room mansion for his family on a hillside in one corner of the property, with a panoramic view of the San Gabriel mountains. Boddy sold the property, including his house, to Los Angeles County in 1953, and  his home became a small museum for his life style.

E. Manchester Boddy, publisher
This desk is carefully composed, but the typewriter
 would have been an antique, even in the 1930s.
Wider view of Boddy's pleasant home office.
The living room is nice but not fancy.
Descanso Gardens is important as a record of life in Los Angeles, both for preserving sections of land in their original state, and for recording a gracious life-style that is now history. Its also a very satisfying place to tramp around. Wear your walking shoes.