Descanso Gardens – An Oasis in L.A.

Jennifer Stern November 26, 2010 No Comments


My retired parents recently traveled from my home state of New Jersey to visit with us in Burbank. Since this is about the time of year that the weather begins to turn cold and dreary on the East Coast and forces people indoors, we were eager to show our boys’ grandparents some of the many beautiful outdoor sights in sunny Southern California

Descanso Gardens La Canada Flintridge

Descanso Gardens La Canada Flintridge


Camellia Forest at Descanso Gardens

Beauty blooms in the Camellia Forest at Descanso Gardens


My Mom has a major green thumb, and has spent the vast majority of her retirement years turning her run-of-the-mill suburban backyard into a blooming, lush garden oasis, complete with walkways, pergolas, butterfly houses and birdbaths. She and my Dad (who jokes that Mom makes him do all the backbreaking labor) have pretty much made their garden a full-time job. Knowing how much they appreciate a lovely and well-tended garden, we opted to take Nonni and Bucky (as they are called by my sons) to Descanso Gardens in nearby La Canada-Flintridge, CA.  

The 150 acres that comprise Descanso Gardens today were undeveloped land when E. Manchester Boddy, former publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News, purchased them in 1937. Nestled in a secluded section of the San Rafael Hills, the land had formerly belonged to the Verdugo family, who were deeded the site by a former governor of California.  

Boddy had the land cleared, and built a stately two-story, 22-room mansion on the site. The mansion, which Boddy named Rancho del Descanso (“ranch of rest” in Spanish) overlooks 25 acres of protected California live oak forest, and a camellia-lined driveway. He also bought an additional 440 acres north of the original property, with mountain streams that provide fresh spring water for the Gardens today. The lower level of the mansion is open to the public.  

Lilac Garden Descanso Gardens

Fragrant blossoms in the Lilac Garden


The modern-day Descanso Gardens is 150 acres of individual gardens and forests, including native and non-native flowers, trees, and shrubs. There is a 5-acre rose garden that boasts more than 3,000 roses from all around the world. The fragrant Lilac Garden puts on a spectacular showcase of purple, blue, pink, violet and white blossoms from mid-March through the end of April, and features more than 400 plants from 250 different types.  

While I originally had my doubts about how interesting a huge garden would appear to my three boys, I needn’t have worried at all. They seemed to see it as an adventure, and they were quite happy to wander the pathways, cross over the bridges, and look for the many turtles and fish residing in the gardens’ ponds and waterways. They even picked a flower here and there, which they proudly presented to me. (Even though they weren’t supposed to pick the flowers, when one of my boys gives a flower to his Mom, I still kind of melt…).  

When we meandered into my personal favorite, the Iris Garden, I was immediately transported by a riot of color and fragrance. Blue, yellow, peach, white, pink, burgundy, purple and even black irises bloomed all around, and it made me just a tiny bit homesick for a very similar (albeit much smaller) iris garden I had planted at our house back in New Jersey.  

Descanso Gardens Flowers

He's not supposed to pick the flowers, but how could he resist?


The native California garden was designed and dedicated in 1959 by a small group of California plant lovers who felt it was important to educate school children in native California flora, and wanted to create a demonstration landscape for homeowners. Many of the original plantings are still there, and many more have been added over the years. Spring to early summer is the best time to view native plants like the bright yellow flannel bush, mountain lilac, monkey flower, sage and Matilija poppies. We wandered around happily, familiarizing ourselves with the plants and musing over what we could plant in our own western garden.  

Somewhere in between the Rose Garden and the California Garden, we turned around and realized that the youngest member of our party, 7-year-old Will, was nowhere to be found. The adult members (me, my husband, mom and dad) immediately began combing the immediate area, calling Will’s name and trying not to panic. I started running aimlessly, at the same time eyeing the koi-filled ponds around us and desperately hoping that my son hadn’t decided to go swimming.  

Of course, when your child gets lost, every second is an eternity, so it’s difficult to judge exactly how much time had passed between the moment we realized Will had gone missing and the moment we were reunited. I only know that somewhere in the midst of my own panicked dashing about the gardens, out of the clear blue, a soft-spoken older gentleman who was a docent at the Gardens walked up and asked me if I was William’s mother. I think I stopped and stared at him for a full minute in wonder, as if he were some kind of angel, and gasped “YES!! YES, I AM!!” In no time at all, this wonderful man calmly led me back to the office at the entrance gate, where my errant young son was sitting teary-eyed on a chair. In a matter of seconds he was locked firmly in my embrace, while I gushed out my gratitude to the docent and the rest of the office staff for finding him. Only a few minutes later I was wagging my finger and giving the harsh “don’t you ever leave my SIGHT!!!” lecture to my boy, who looked abashed, but relieved. He clung to my hand throughout the rest of our visit, while his grandparents hovered close by.  

Descanso Gardens Roses

Sometimes you've just got to stop and smell the roses...


We relaxed a bit when we reached the tranquil Japanese-style garden, which blends design elements of classic tea, strolling and Zen gardens. We crossed an arched bridge and strolled on shaded paths along a koi-filled stream to the Full Moon Tea House, designed by Whitney Smith and built in 1966. The blue tile roofing, imported from Japan, is especially striking in the spring when nearby pink cherry and plum trees are in bloom. Nearby, the Minka (traditional farmhouse) was designed and donated by Robert H. Kawashima in 1969. The plant collection features Japanese maples, azaleas, bamboo, and other Asian plants. You can sit on the porch of the tea house and enjoy your beverage of choice or a small snack while overlooking the koi pond.  

When you breathe the words “gift shop,” most kids’ ears immediately prick up. Immediately upon entering the gardens, to your right, is exactly that–a very charming gift shop that you cannot miss.  We decided to save it for the end of  our visit, and we were not disappointed. It is chock-full of garden furnishings like benches, bird baths and statuary; gardening tools; botanical books, art and cards; glassware and ceramics; t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and gloves. There is also a terrific collection of live plants and flowers for sale, as well as seeds. My mother bought several different varieties of annual wildflower seeds, though she wondered aloud if the seeds would grow in New Jersey’s decidedly harsher climate. The kids clamored to buy everything from garden-themed chocolates to stuffed animals in the shapes of birds, squirrels, and other critters. Surprisingly enough, my son Ben wanted to buy some seeds to plant at our house. Since our visit, they have actually sprouted, so we shall see if they make it to maturity!  

Descanso Gardens with Kids

The boys enjoying themselves at the Gardens


A major attraction for kids (not to mention kids-at-heart) is the Descanso Gardens Enchanted Railroad. The entire family can climb aboard this 1/8 replica of a diesel train and take a leisurely ride around a section of the gardens. The train costs $3 to ride and tickets can be purchased at the train station near the gardens’ Center Circle. Of course, if your kids are anything like mine, they will want to just ride the train all day long, which can run you a pretty penny. I had to cut them off after a couple of rides or all my money would have been spent right there.  

Several events are coming up at the Gardens especially for the younger set: On Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 11 and 12 at 9:30 and 11 a.m., kids will get to enjoy a brunch with their favorite man in red, Santa Claus. Following a gourmet breakfast, youngsters get to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they want for Christmas (bring a camera!). Afterwards, they can decorate holiday cookies, and each child will go home with a goodie bag. There is a $50 fee; $42 for members; $19 for children 4-12; children under 3 are free. Reservations are required; call (818) 790-3663.  

Then, on Saturday, Dec. 18 at 11 a.m., kids and parents alike will be entertained by imaginative, train-themed stories told live by actor and storyteller Bill Ratner. Families can enjoy sipping on free hot cocoa from 10:30 a.m. to noon at the train station, then go for a ride on the Enchanted Railroad.  

Other than the little Will-getting-lost incident, we had a relaxing, enjoyable and leisurely afternoon in a beautiful setting. If you are a Los Angeles resident and need to get away from it all, with or without children, Descanso Gardens is an idyllic and peaceful little oasis and a perfect respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.  

Descanso Gardens is located at 1418 Descanso Drive, La Canada-Flintridge, near the intersection of the 210 and 2 freeways. It is a 20-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles.

avatarAbout the Author:

Jennifer Stern is a mom of three teen boys, who provide her with constant inspiration to write. She is also a fitness professional/junkie who teaches everything from Spinning to Zumba. A New Jersey native, this is her second time living in Southern California. She loves the L.A. lifestyle, but does miss eating decent pizza and bagels--so she consoles herself with excellent Mexican food. She and her family live in Burbank.

Tags: , Reviews, Travel Excursions

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