La Cañada Flintridge, California
Descanso Gardens sits on land that has belonged to many people, the town’s name even referencing two distinct communities that became one. Something of this duality and contrast can be felt in the design of the garden: it is both a forest of Coast Live Oak trees dating back to early Native American settlements, and is one of the largest collections of camellias in North America. One minute you are strolling through a seemingly endless rose garden, for example, and the next minute the orderly plantings dissolve into the scrappy rugged terrain of the surrounding hillsides. While staying true to the history of the California landscape, there is a sense of adaptation and change that gives Descanso a unique spirit.
Descanso seems at first to be primarily a forest rather than a garden, but the floral elements are thoughtfully incorporated into the landscape and achieve a more natural aesthetic. The rambling Rose Garden, tucked behind a miniature train station, has a loose layout interspersed with various arbors, a gazebo, a lotus pond, and even a small stream. I was mesmerized by a tall cluster of Matilija poppies growing in the California Natives garden with their large, papery white petals swaying in the light breeze. With fewer flowers fighting for your attention, highlights like these stood out even more.
The massive collection of camellias huddled in the shade of the taller trees is what Descanso is most known for, but they have never impressed me much. There are almost too many of them to appreciate as they were planted in mass for commercial purposes, and were apparently acquired from Japanese nurseries when their proprietors were sent to internment camps. Descanso recently underwent a somewhat controversial renovation when a large section of the camellias were relocated to help conserve water and ensure the health of the native Oak trees (whose roots were rotting from the excessive watering). This willingness to reduce the size of one of its most popular features shows the dedication the gardeners have to protecting the land in their care.
Final Rating: Descanso is a well-balanced mix of native California landscape and ornamental garden elements that offers a rustic alternative to some of the more showy gardens in the area. There are some lovely flowers to be seen here, but the Coast Live Oak trees are the real stars of the show, their twisted branches perfectly framing views of the hills in the background and adding a real feeling of history to the place. The Ancient Forest was another favorite section where you can walk among endangered cycads and towering redwood trees. This is a garden that has taught me more about the beauty of the original local landscape in its raw form. It is admirable how Descanso honors California’s native plants and history while constantly evolving and adapting for the future. THREE BLOOM RATING