Descanso Gardens
From Ranchero to Rosarium
By John Birsner

Descanso Gardens opens for its volunteers and members at eight o'clock in the morning. On most Sundays I'm waiting for the Mission style wrought iron gate to be opened, a five gallon bucket full of clippers, loppers, a saw, gloves, bandana, water and catalogue of the roses swinging at my side. I walk through the beautiful Arts and Crafts arcade with all its Japanese accents, past the display of plants in bloom in the Gardens that day, veer west past the small Harvest Garden where many children's programs are held, and enter the International Rosarium where I am allowed to work. I am transported in time and place.

If I walk my usual path, I enter through "Japan," one of a dozen or so areas dedicated to roses bred in various countries. Japanese roses are not well known in this country so the novelty of the rare 'Nishiki', a yellow blend florabunda; 'Mikado', a more well-known red blend hybrid tea, and the utterly unique paint-splattered pink and white of 'Sakura-Gasuni', is a pleasant way to start my day.

"China," of course, is next to "Japan," and is entered through a massive bower of Rosa gigantea, one of the forebearers of the class comprising China roses. In keeping with the theme of ancestors is a small bed with the Four China Studs. Rather than characters in a kung-fu movie, this quartet of roses was introduced over two hundred years ago to Europe and was the basis of the cross breeding that gives us the spectacular diversity that comprises modern rose hybridizing. 

Past "China" are two large beds dedicated to the David Austin roses, one English hybridizer's attempt to have the fragrance and shape of old roses with frequent reblooming and party colors we've come to expect of the more modern roses. Many visitors think his attempts are the best of both worlds. And just beyond is the English Tudor cottage that hides the restrooms admirably and houses all the garden equipment.

The sign-in sheet for volunteers hangs from a peg and has instructions for the day. Deadheading  cutting off old blooms  is always on the list. "Cut back perenniels," is predictable, as is the seasonal but dreaded, "Peg albas and damasks after cutting out old canes." After a season of climbing under prickly sprawling old garden roses with hand saw and ties to pull arching canes back to earth, I promised myself I'd play hooky those days next year.

Not that I'm not happy to be here. I'm the only person among three thousand roses of twelve hundred varieties for at least a little while. It's Sunday, and if this isn't Heaven or church, it could certainly pass for the Garden of Eden. My bucket and I head off for our pew.

How these beautiful gardens came to be and continue to flourish is as interesting and compelling a story as, say, how we arrived at the modern rose.

For at least fifteen hundred years, Tongva Indians lived in this area, the adjacent Los Angeles basin and the Channel Islands. The California climate was good to them. Oak trees, (Quercus agrifolia among others) provided acorns. Deer, quail, and rabbits, in abundance to this day, supplied protein, while numerous native plants supplanted the diet and supplied building materials and tools. No reason Adam and Eve couldn't have started off rather nicely here. 

"Civilization," though, brought an end to their idyllic status quo. Canoeing out to welcome Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 may have seemed like the neighborly thing to do but by 1771, Father Junipero Serra had established Mission San Gabriel and the Tongvanow "Gabrielinos"were tilling his fields, like it or not.

As Spanish domination proceeded, land grants were apportioned to those who had been of service. Thirty six thousand acres became the property of Corporal Jose Maria Verdugo, his name still gracing many local landmarks, including the hills adjacent to Descanso Gardens and a thoroughfare to get there. 

Life was pretty good for the Verdugo clan until the 1846 Mexican-American War and California statehood in 1850. With the change in management their holdings were divided up among thirteen sons and much was sold off to American investors. By the 1880's the rancheros had become rancheritos with a land boom that subdivided up all but two parcels totaling one hundred and sixty five acres.

Enter E(lias) Manchester Boddy. Mustard gas, once helpful when judiciously used for cancer chemotherapy, was hell on the lungs when wafting between World War I trenches. Boddy had had enough complications from what he had inhaled on the battlefield for his east coast physician to recommend a move to a drier climate. He gave up his job at the New York Times and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1920's with more enthusiasm than money. In time he bought the struggling Daily News from a member of the Vanderbilt family. Hard work in a competitive business eventually provided a comfortable income for him and his family.

Always an enthusiastic outdoorsman, Boddy was attracted by the still rural charm of the town of La Cañada. He bought that remaining one hundred and sixty acres and named it Rancho del Descanso. "Descanso" may translate as rest or repose in Spanish but Boddy stayed busy. Over four hundred additional acres north of the property with ever-flowing springs was bought to assure a permanent water supply.

Camellias, (C. japonica), were popular as garden plants and corsages at this time and were grown by many Japanese gardeners in the area. Boddy had had a long interest in and respect for the Japanese even writing a book, The Japanese in America, in 1921. Camellias did well under the shade of his oak groves, and a cut flower industry was one of his first projects.

In 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Boddy found himself with a business opportunity that was surely ambivalent at best. All along the west coast Japanese-Americans were being sent to internment camps to wait out the war, leaving businesses behind. Boddy acquired thousands of camellias from Francis Uyematsu, a successful local nurseryman, buying his entire stock. 

Boddy wanted to expand his plant breeding program beyond camellias. In 1948 he hired Dr. Walter E. Lammerts, late of the University of California. How the professor left academia is a well-known story. Snapdragons, a very popular home garden plant, had been virtually wiped out by a rust fungus infection. Lammerts went to work breeding for rust resistance and had healthy stock back in nurseries within two years. Offered a salary three times what he made teaching, he left the university and became a full time commercial plant geneticist.

Before he came to Descanso, Armstrong Nursery had hired Lammerts to revive and expand their rose palette. Rose breeding had painted itself into a corner. Since the initial excitement for French rose breeder Pernet-Ducher's ability to breed a vibrantly yellow rose, his progeny, the "Pernetianas," were prone to blackspot fungus and the color spectrum had stalled.

If luck favors the prepared, Lammerts was both. Rather than continuing the constant inbreeding that was the trend, Lammerts felt that a new approach was needed. Taking 'Soeur Therese', the yellow blend hybrid tea from Guillot, and the fragrant deep red hybrid tea, 'Crimson Glory' from Kordes, Lammerts got eighteen seedlings from his first batch of embryo cultures. One of these was 'Charlotte Armstrong', arguably one of the finest of modern hybrid teas. 

The All-America Rose Selections (AARS) group certainly was impressed. Their recent concept of picking the "best" all around roses as evaluated from growing in twenty trial gardens throughout North America, had started in 1940 with one of Lammerts' roses, 'The Chief', and in 1941, included 'Charlotte Armstrong'.

Lammerts continued nearly yearly to produce AARS winners and other breeders using his new stock were garnering such awards themselves. Of forty six roses he introduced to commerce, nearly a fourth were winners, an astounding record in the years between 1940 and 1981.

At Descanso, his many interests flourished. He worked with avocados, nectarines, peaches (one he named "Evening News"), and other stone-fruit. He developed a thornless pyracantha and a number of lilacs that would thrive in the warm local climate.

Not content with just the japonica camellias, Boddy, Lammerts and first garden curator, Howard Asper, branched out. C. reticulata, a Chinese camellia not imported to the United States in over a hundred years became the basis of most non-Asian stock of this variety. C. susanqua, a smaller blooming camellia, and C. sinensis, the camellia whose leaves bring us tea, rounded out their fascination with the genus.

It was with his continued rose breeding, though, that Lammerts has left his greatest legacy. His early insights into rose genetics, as described in the 1948 ARS Annual are cited to this day for their insights. As much a tribute as anything must be the number of his roses that can still be found in the most general of nurseries and garden stores. 'Mirandy', 'Queen Elizabeth', 'Charlotte Armstrong', 'Chrysler Imperial' and others continue to delight both old and new rose fanciers to this day with their vibrant colors and disease resistance.

Boddy wanted a rose garden to accompany his other projects. Lammerts was happy to oblige. With the aim of representing the history of European rose development, he quickly outgrew an allotted acre. With a canvas of five acres though, his vision had room to be realized. With a frame of species roses for a border, circular pathways guided the visitor literally on a time-line of rose history. From ancient times through planned cross-pollinations, the centuries gave way to smaller time increments as more roses were bred. Albas, gallicas and damasks gave way to hybrid perpetuals, bourbons and, eventually more modern roses.

As a tribute to the AARS winners, ten bushes each of every winner for every year were planted in an adjacent area, separated, perhaps, from the docile dowagers who couldn't abide a kaleidoscopic kindergarten in their midst.

With Lammerts' interest in so many other plants, it's easy enough to understand how he tried to complement his rose groupings with various companion plants, many of which he himself had bred. Though this garden was never a monument to himself, he was proud of his work and his vision is felt to this day in the International Rosarium.

Boddy opened Rancho del Descanso in 1950 free to the public. Literally an overwhelming success, it was soon closed and reopened in 1951 with an admission fee. But in 1952, with both declining health and finances, Boddy contemplated selling his beloved estate. Though approached by real estate developers including Walt Disney pre-Disneyland, Boddy wanted Descanso to remain intact and available to the public. At this point a determined group of sixty five neighbors expressed concern and support for the gardens to continue as they were. 

A compromise was reached where Boddy leased Descanso Gardens to Los Angeles County rather than selling it. Not long after, though, the county did buy the property with the thought to keeping it open as part of their Parks and Recreation Department complaining that upkeep exceeded income, again the county considered the Gardens' sale. Again, concerned neighbors and friends of the Gardens stepped forward, this time founding the Descanso Gardens Guild in 1957. Organized by Forrest Kresser Smith, a woman now honored by having one of those warm weather lilacs named after her, the Guild succeeded in getting the property transferred to the Dept. of Arboreta and Botanic Gardens. Now in a bureau with a much more supportive view of Descanso, the Gardens as an ongoing public resource was much more secure. Or so it was thought.

In 1960, when the county again looked at selling the Gardens, the Guild negotiated with the county board of supervisors for its preservation. Finally an arrangement was arrived at that continues to this day. The Guild incorporated, agreed to share and assume more and more of the Gardens' expenses over time, and finally took over complete management in 1993. With this new-found independence and security, but ongoing overhead, the Guild had to be creative and resourceful.

Projects were designed and embarked upon. A Japanese teahouse and garden were built. A garden for developmentally handicapped children was an early endeavor as were other children oriented activities. Fundraising functions, including Christmas programs, concerts, plays, and nighttime entertainment, built community support. Georgie Van de Camp, an enthusiastic local philanthropist, headed fundraising efforts for the beautiful gatehouse, gift shop, offices and lecture and exhibition hall complex that beckons the visitor with its Mission style architecture. Descanso was alive and well and flourishing under the Guild's guidance.

By the mid-1980's, though, the forty year old rose garden was feeling the impact of time. Rose names and roses had been lost. Paths were crumbling. Rose garden volunteers like Gail Boatwright realized that a complete rehabilitation needed to be undertaken. The board of trustees had started on a master plan and she and other volunteers were invited to participate. Input was sought and offered; a vision evolved. Thoughtful architects and engineers were hired. The result of four years of careful, inspired planning and one year of construction resulted, in 1994, in a spectacular garden, true to Lammerts' concerns, but having a charm and beauty that is so much greater than just the sum of its parts. It is called The International Rosarium and it is a joy to behold.

Lammerts' combination of the historical and new is preserved in five acres of meandering paths that give a feeling of relaxed intimacy in a casual natural setting. There remain all the lessons of history in the rose beds but there are so many unique other features that children or non-rose persons are still charmed and entertained. 

Adjacent to that English cottage is a beautiful open pavilion that hosts many events and fundraisers. The floor is tiled with bricks that continue to be bought and engraved in honor or in memory of someone dear to the donator. With each of us surprising the other in turn, my partner and I purchased side by side tiles as close as we could to our favorite rose bed. This may well be the dearest thing we've ever done for each other, let alone Descanso.

A stream meanders from the lakean earlier Guild project that local birdwatchers flock tojust to the edge of the new AARS garden and behind a long row of species roses. There's a White Garden with the palest of roses and companion plants. There's the Nanny's Garden with restful benches and a small fountain children find irresistible. The Victorian Garden has rings of lavender and 'Reine des Violettes' roses around a central gazebo wreathed in climbing 'Sombreuil' roses. It's a favorite venue for weddings. There's the Secret Garden with a pint-sized boxwood maze. When I work in that area I'm always amazed at how enchanted the children find this Lilliputian labyrinth. The arbor entering this area is draped with the "found" rose 'Secret Garden Musk Climber,' a favorite of old rose aficionados who marvel at the intense clove fragrance its white blossoms exude. 

I'm continually impressed at how well all these lovely touches and all this charming novelty can coexist with as serious and didactic an approach to the history of the rose as any academic taxonomist could hope for. What a balancing act has been accomplished!

My favorite aspect of the garden, though, must be the groupings of roses by "country." When a garden staff member says, "We're working in 'Australia' today," you know you'll be among many of breeder Alistair Clark's beautiful progeny, many not available in any other North American garden. And "New Zealand" is just adjacent with Sam McGredy's colorful offerings, proof that beautiful roses can come from the most disparate of parents. "Germany?" The best that the Tantaus and Kordeses have to offer. The Spanish Fountain area? A tribute to Pedro Dot and his ilk.

I've made peace with Meillands in "France," loved the offerings from the Lenses in "Belgium" and pruned the progeny of the Poulsens in "Denmark." I've deadheaded decades of AARS winners, and been bemused over the offerings of Ralph Moore, that intrepid breeder of miniatures from Visalia, California, who celebrated his one hundredth birthday in 2007. 

Moore, a colleague and collaborator of Lammerts, shared his passion for "wild card" cross-pollinations, the more distinct and dissimilar the better. Anyone developing miniature mosses, striped rugosas, or hybrids with the Hulthemiasnot even true roseshas kept an open and enquiring mind. I confess I have at least as many Ralph Moore creations as does the Rosarium, and it takes all the discipline I can muster not to sneak in here, plant more, and claim divine intervention if anyone questions the inventory.

I've had tea in the large section of tea roses in the Edwardian Garden, pulled the world's most invasive green onions from the Tudor Herb Garden, and admired old hybrid teas not available from any American nursery nor able to be imported. I've even felt rather macho around the Four China Studs and 'Playboy', that red blend ruffle-petalled floribunda Ralph Moore had worked with.

What might I like that the garden doesn't have? A section for "lost" (or "found," if you prefer) roses rescued from oblivion would be worth having. There are roses of nearly every class in the California gold mining areas, particularly in cemeteries, which have bloomed year after year, without pruning, watering, fertilizing or doting gardener, that continue to grow in lonely splendor. A bed of them would be beautiful and instructional. We could honor their tenacity and work in a little history lesson Professor Lammerts would be proud of.

At nine AM, when the Gardens are opened to the public, I have to share this lovely space. Others crowd into my pew. Yes, I can direct the errant visitor to the Camellia Forest, or to the California Native Plant Garden, the Lilac Grove or even to coy koi. But for me, I'm pretty happy right here. I revel in the beauty of the roses, honor the efforts of the volunteer Guild that saved this all from being homes or highway, and patiently explain at least once per Sunday how to prune to an outfacing bud.

Originally published in the 2007 American Rose Society Annual, Kitty Belendez, Editor.

© Copyright John Birsner. All rights reserved.

Photos © Copyright by Kitty Belendez
Updated January 19, 2023

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