Just walking in, the birds are easier to hear than they are at home, a pleasant chirping that is somehow audible over the gentle hum of people going in and out of Descanso Gardens in Los Angeles’ La Canada Flintridge suburb. The steam of people is slow right now, as coronavirus scares keep admission down, but my membership allows me to enter without pre-reserving an entrance time. The gift shop and cafe are closed, but the trees and flowers in front are blooming and lovely.
My first stop is the rose garden, which is filled with blooms of every color on this June Saturday. A few other visitors meander down the paths and through the bushes, but this urban oasis still feels as though it belongs to me. I stop to smell some of the roses, but through my mask – they are required right now – it is hard, so I settle for some photos. Bees join me, adding their buzzing to the chirping of the birds, and the tittering of squirrels. A sign says there are more than 100 species of bees found here, though I can’t identify more than a few by sight.
The rose garden
Descanso Gardens is the legacy of Manchester Boddy, who deeded the 150 acre green space surrounding his home to Los Angeles County in 1953. Boddy, the owner of the Los Angeles Daily News from 1926-1953, was an amateur arborist (in addition to other hobbies like filmmaking and politics – including an unsuccessful senate bid). In 1937, he bought the property, and built a modest 22-room mansion among the native oak trees. When Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps in 1942, Boddy purchased 100,000 camellia plants from two Japanese-owned nurseries. The camellia forest at Descanso Gardens is the largest in the country.
One blooming camellia
I wander through the forest next, beautiful even though camellia season is pretty much over by this point. The oaks tower overhead, their branches forming intricate patterns in the blue sky. The sound of a creek flowing adds to the ambience, and I even manage to spy a deer, although it vanishes quickly.
I love the oaks!
Descanso Gardens also features a Japanese garden (with tea house although it’s currently closed), a lilac garden, a cactus garden, native California plants, and even an “ancient forest” with species that have been in existence for aeons. Each is beautiful, each is special, and each offers different emotions as I walk through.
Tranquility in the Japanese garden
I head up the hill toward Manchester Boddy’s house, which today functions as part Museum to the man’s life and part art gallery (although closed due to coronavirus right now). At the top of the hill, it feels as though the house nestles into the oak canopy; the squirrels and birds are at eye-level. The home is lovely, and while large, not ostentatious. Boddy is truly the definition of a self-made man. He was a janitor, ditch digger, and encyclopedia salesman, among other jobs before becoming the editor – and then owner – of the Daily News. His liberal views made the paper both controversial and iconic in Los Angeles, propelling him to fame on a local level. I sit on a bench behind his home, wondering what life must have been like living in a place like this.
The Boddy house
As a visitor, though, I have to move on. Descanso Gardens is a special place for me, a place I grew up visiting regularly, and I am proud to be a member today. (A couples membership is only $80 for the year, especially worth it today for the sake of having a place to walk during the pandemic where numbers are being strictly controlled – it never felt anywhere close to crowded.) I am grateful to have this small splash of green here in the urban expanse, and I will be back soon, and often.
Descanso Gardens is located at 1418 Descanso Drive in La Canada Flintridge, California. It is open from 9am to 7pm seven days a week, though non-members must make advance reservations. Visit www.descansogardens.org for more information or to purchase tickets and membership.
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