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New gallery exhibit ‘Growing Habitat’ tells larger, wilder narrative about Descanso

Descanso Gardens has long been a destination for horticultural enthusiasts, but as more installations begin to take advantage of the garden's natural geographic and biological resources, it's becoming apparent Descanso has a much larger, and wilder, story to tell.

The 165-acre garden occupies a unique spot in the Los Angeles Basin, close to urbanity but nestled in a foothills area that offers a complex network of undeveloped wildlife corridors and waterways.

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A new exhibit opening in the garden's Sturt Haaga Gallery Sunday, "Growing Habitat: L.A.'s Wildlife and Descanso," presents the botanical garden as a rich habitat for area wildlife and aims to highlight efforts being undertaken to connect the space even more deeply to its surrounding ecosystem.

"For the past several years there's been a growing interest in the wildlife that visitors to Descanso are seeing," said Emi Yoshimura, the garden's education programs manager.

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The 2014 addition of a 7.7-acre oak woodland designed to recreate the area as it likely existed before the arrival of 16th century European settlers helped return a portion of Descanso to its native roots. A Lakeside Lookout unveiled last year featured plants chosen for their ability to provide food and shelter to birds and pollinating insects.

"Our hypothesis was if we restored the native plant ecosystem, maybe that would support native animals as well," said Yoshimura, adding that bears have been spotted coming onto the property for a nighttime limnal drink.

In addition to wildlife photography — some captured by motion-sensor camera traps on site and others taken in areas monitored by local preservationists — "Growing Habitat" will feature displays on healthy animal habitats, taxidermy specimens on loan from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and a floor map carpet created with the nonprofit Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy orienting Descanso to surrounding wildlife corridors.

Barbara Goto, director of operations for the Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy, said the group is excited to communicate with a wider audience about the biodiversity of the Foothills.

"We hope people are going to come into this exhibit and walk across this carpet, which is detailed enough they can see streets, and understand where they are standing vis-à-vis where these animals are coming from," Goto said.

A culvert provided by Foothill Municipal Water District will let young visitors imagine how migrating animals get from one land-locked refuge to another, while one room will be dedicated to the ongoing work of local wildlife heroes.

Gallery Manager Cristeen Martinez said "Growing Habitat" will also display nature journals, discussing the importance of citizen science on the classification and protection of species in advance of a June 2 "BioBlitz," where Descanso visitors can log photos of observed species using the app iNaturalist.

"People are encouraged to take a brochure from the exhibit that has some prompts for them to do journaling as they walk back out into the gardens," Martinez said.

Yoshimura said there will be a little something for everyone.

"I think it's going to be a fun way to think about Descanso and the nature around us, what might be in our backyards and how it relates to a bigger story," Yoshimura said.

FYI: Sturt Haaga Gallery's "Growing Habitat: L.A.'s Wildlife and Descanso" begins with a free opening reception Sunday, from 4 to 6 p.m. The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and admission is included with Descanso Gardens entry: $9 adults; $6 seniors and students with ID; $4 children 5 to 12.

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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