Verdant Urban Retreat : The county arboretum offers a scenic backdrop for film crews, theater troupes and romancing couples.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Donna Luisa Guinan of Chatsworth went looking for the most romantic setting in Southern California for her outdoor plays, she found it at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County.

Guinan, an actress and a co-founder of A Company of Their Own, a troupe that performs Shakespeare on summer evenings, said, "It's the perfect place for the comedies, where the characters are running off into the forest to find love."

9 a.m.: Spring is in the air at this wonderland of forest and jungle, lake and rippling stream. Alighting from your car, you are enveloped with the fragrance of a million blossoms.

Plants are gathered here from around the world, nurtured by horticulturists who make the Southland a more colorful place by finding exotic vegetation that thrives in our climate and soils. Many people come here for recreation: gardeners who buy ornamental plants and learn more about their hobby, and children who toss bread crumbs to the waterfowl and romp on the spacious lawns.

Light years removed from the busy streets, the park attracts movie crews as well as Shakespearean actors. It also lures an unending procession of couples who stroll about hand-in-hand, lost to the world. "Sometimes you see them sitting on the benches, smooching," said Julie Norman, an arboretum nursery worker who had her own wedding here under the stars in a garden of perennial flowers near a waterfall.

9:10 a.m.: The waterfall is one of many sights worth visiting in the park of 127 acres--a little more than one-third the size of the Cal State Northridge campus. You'll receive a map of roads and landmarks in the entry pavilion.

Stepping into the park, expect to soon meet a stately peacock. Three pair imported from India at about the turn of the century started a thriving flock, and their unearthly screeching adds to the exotic atmosphere. Behind almost any tree or bush you'll find one of the greenish, turkey-sized birds, ready to peck at a kernel of un-popped popcorn or spread his feathery train into a brilliantly colored four-foot-wide fan.

The appropriately named Peacock Cafe is a few steps from the entry. Next door, the gift shop offers a variety of garden books, plants, pots and cards. The cafe is a good spot to start the morning with a bagel or muffin or to wind up a tour with a choice of sandwiches, soups and salads.

In offices within sniffing distance of a toasted bagel, park scientists bridge the realm of horticulture with Southlanders' back-yard gardens. If you bring in a branch, flower or clipping, you'll be directed to plant identification specialist David Lofgren. He will tell you exactly what plant it is and whether it's suffering from a disease, malnutrition or infestation. Books and articles on growing conditions and diseases are available in the library, which also has detailed plant location maps so you can find a healthy, mature specimen of your plant or tree.

9:45 a.m.: A short stroll--or a ride on one of the trams that begin running at 11 a.m.--takes us to the tropical greenhouse.

There, jungle plants grow to spectacular dimensions. Vines, ferns and colorful orchids are profuse. Spanish moss hangs in hoary clumps. Orange and stippled koi dart about in bubbling pools. As we stroll through the greenhouse, a young couple hands a camera to another visitor and asks him to take a picture of them holding hands among the lush vegetation.

10:15 a.m.: The arboretum is a favorite backdrop for motion pictures as well as snapshots. Back out on the circular road through the park, there is a good chance you'll see one of the film crews that work here several times a month. Movies such as "Dave," "Indecent Proposal" and the still-in-production "T. Rex" have included scenes here. Film crews have been a regular part of the arboretum scenery since the late Johnny Weissmuller shot "Tarzan" here in the 1930s.

"It has enough trees to give you a tropical look in any jungle you want anywhere in the world," said Peter Juliano, location manager for the television series "Murder, She Wrote," which has filmed portions of several episodes here.

A show that gave the park tremendous exposure was "Fantasy Island," which opened every episode with the character played by the late Herve Villechaize ringing a bell and calling out "The plane! The plane!" from the steeple of the Queen Anne cottage. A party house on the shore of a natural lake, the cottage is in the arboretum's historical section of restored buildings, which also includes the old Santa Anita train depot, a pioneer adobe and a coach barn.

11:15 a.m.: The Queen Anne cottage was built in 1885 by Elias J. (Lucky) Baldwin, a tycoon and the first president of the Pacific Stock Exchange. Restored in 1951, it is filled with fine furnishings from the turn of the century, which you can see through the windows.

Across the lake is the 1840 adobe, where Baldwin lived. He made his fortune in Northern California and Nevada real estate and mining, and moved south in 1875, buying vast acreage in Southern California, including the land around the arboretum.

In 1890, on a spot a short distance away now occupied by the Foothill Freeway, he built the railroad depot. It has been meticulously restored and moved into the park to a site facing Baldwin Avenue. From the platform you can see the Santa Anita racetrack and the Santa Anita Fashion Park mall across the street. The depot is open on weekends, when docents show off the authentic equipment and furnishings.

Baldwin had refined tastes for fine music, wine and racehorses. He gathered exotic plants on around-the-world tours, establishing the arboretum's legacy. Arboretum historian Sandy Snider points out that he also had a taste for attractive young women.

Baldwin was married four times, acknowledged bearing a child by a mistress and was sued at least three times for breach of promise by women who alleged that he seduced and abandoned them. Once during a court hearing, a woman sitting in the audience pulled out a pistol and fired a bullet through the hat he was wearing.

Noon: Baldwin appreciated nature's beauty and would no doubt be gratified to see the romantic couples strolling around the park. As we head back to the car, we pass another couple holding hands in the glade near the entry to the Australian section.

"It's such a lush, gorgeous, green place--a place that assures the audience that nature will take its course," said Guinan, who played the role of Tatiana last summer in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The play was staged in this glade, surrounded on three sides by a forest, which she said, "was perfect for the scenes where the lovers are chasing each other through the trees."

The arboretum's assistant superintendent, Tim Lindsay, agreed that the spot is an apt setting for a romantic interlude. "Some of the trees are koelreuteria from South America, which produce fine summer flowers: chiffon yellow, in a circular arrangement (that are) very distinctive."

"There are also chionanthus, which produce fragrant white blossoms in the spring that last through the summer," Lindsay said. "There are also locust trees and horse chestnuts.

"It's a very nice forest."

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WHERE AND WHEN

What: Arboretum of Los Angeles County.

Location: 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

Price: Adults, $5. Seniors and students, $3. Children, 5-12, $1. Under 4 free. Free admission the third Tuesday of each month.

Call: (818) 821-3222.

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