Descanso Gardens, CA

Another stop on my California trip was Descanso Gardens, located northwest of Pasadena in greater Los Angeles. I was drawn to this property for the historical and cultural significance of the landscape over time, especially with the Native American people and Spanish colonization. In the botanic garden world, most east coast institution’s narratives begin sometime between the 18th and 20th century when a person of European heritage first inhabited the land for farming or industry. Any mention of pre-European land-uses and settlement is usually a courtesy honorable mention or an afterthought…unless they can capitalize on site archaeology projects. There’s usually little attempt to explain the significance of a site being utilized for hundreds to thousands of years. This is because the first European occupier of the site was often a contemporary with the statesman who brokered unfair land “treaties” with Native Americans. It can often be difficult for organizations to honor these past inhabitants without in some way compromising their legacy and mission statement. This type of attitude must change so Native American history is a prominent storyline, where appropriate, in all botanic garden narratives. For example, instead of simply stating on their website that John Bartram of Bartram’s Garden (the oldest garden in the country) purchased 102 acres from Swedish Settlers in 1728, it should go one step back to explain where the Swedes acquired the land and who the earliest known settlers were. We need a cultural shift as seen in Canada, where “First Nations” has come into general use referring to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and cultural institutions from the country take large measures to acknowledge the site’s original inhabitants in daily operations and messaging.

So yes, this visit inspired me to think about how we today in America are honoring our full past at cultural institutions. Here are some other thoughts, inspirations, and similar themes from that day:

  1. The Native American / Spanish rule beginnings. The earliest known settlers of the present Los Angeles county area were the Tongva people, first settling in Southern California some 10,000 years ago, They made great use of the Descanso site, establishing up to 30 defined villages, each with around 400 huts. The Tongva left behind few remnants of structures or artifacts, and they very appropriately called themselves Tongva, which literally means “people of the earth.” This culture and way of life was largely destroyed by the Spanish, who in the late 18th century took a hold of the land through a vast network of connected missions and military camps in a feudal-like land system.
  2. The story of the signature camelia collection. A centerpiece of the institution, it was acquired by Boddy in 1942 from two prosperous Japanese-American owned nurseries whose owners [F.M. Uyematsu of Star Nursery and  F.W. Yoshimura of Mission Nursery, now San Gabriel Nursery] were sent to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I’m glad their story is being told to help keep their memory and legacy going!
  3. Gardens that honor the past. I’m pleased to see the sensitivity to site history and ownership and furthermore wonderful storytelling through the landscape with gardens such as the Native garden and Japanese Garden. The Oak Woodland opened in 2014 and recreates the oaks and meadows habitat of the Los Angeles Basin in the times before European contact. The Ancient Forest opened in 2015 as a collection of cycads sited amid other plants of ancient, “living fossil” lineages
  4. Water rights. I learned that Boddy (or perhaps subsequent owners?) were smart enough to ensure that the property would always have access to water and the deed included exclusive water rights. Without this, most of the garden would be impossible to maintain in the climate of the region. This theme will be interesting to watch in the west coast over time.
  5. Elias Boddy. Another interesting biographical sketch portrayed for the founder of Descanso, born into a potato farming family in eastern Washington to eventually managing the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News. Boddy bought 165 acres of undeveloped land in the late 1930s and built a home on site designed by “architect to the stars” James E. Dolena. Boddy renamed the estate  “Descanso Gardens,” and opened to the public in 1950 before selling two years later in 1952. With fear of aggressive development in the area, he was able to convince the county to purchase the land to maintain the property as a public garden.

Check out my limited site photos here


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