Winter Wonders


In the midst of a shady live oak forest surrounded by streams, chaparral and a bird sanctuary is a fascinating display of large and colorful flowers.

That's right, flowers in the winter, despite the cold temperatures and rain brought by El Nino.

Descanso Gardens in La Canada has one of the largest collections of camellias in North America, about 45,000 of them and more than 655 varieties. And they're blooming!

This is a place you'd never imagine exists just minutes from a hectic city. Water flowing and birds chirping are about the only sounds in this serene garden, a stone's throw from Glendale.

People come to Descanso Gardens to relax and, of course, to see its world-renowned camellia forest, which looks spectacular this time of year against a background of snow-capped mountains.

A docent will lead a camellia walk Sunday, which is free with $5 admission to the gardens. You'll not only get to view the various species of camellias and learn their history, but the one-hour tour also will cover planting and maintenance.

The lush, 160-acre Descanso Gardens site is widely known for its 35-acre camellia forest, considered one of the best camellia collections outside China. The gardens feature three species in bloom: sasanqua, reticulata and japonica, on trees that grow as high as 20 feet.

"That's why it's called a forest and not just a garden," said Karen Dardick, gardens spokeswoman. "It's a very unique way to display camellias."

The reticulatas are from China; the other two species are from Japan.

There are bright red, white, pink and multicolored flowers throughout the forest. Some are as big as 6 1/2 inches round, some as small as 1 inch.

"The cold weather has produced better flower color," said Tim Thibault, camellia curator at the gardens. "We usually have flowers later than anyone else anyway, because this is a cold site, surrounded by mountains."

This time of year, the forest has mostly japonicas and reticulatas. There are only a few sasanquas, which are mostly white with pink borders.

The japonicas are a mix of red, pink and white. The reticulatas are a stunning dark red with gold centers.

"The peak bloom is later this year," Thibault said. "Normally the peak is the end of January through February, but it's going to be more like March and April this year."

In 1997, the garden had camellias in June, which is considered incredibly late for this flower. It could happen again this year, Thibault says.

Even if it doesn't, by then Descanso Gardens will have millions of flowers, including lilacs, roses, tulips and irises. There are benches scattered throughout the garden so you can sit and bask in the tranquillity.

The middle of the camellia forest is always a good place to do that. It was created more than 60 years ago when businessman Manchester Boddy purchased the land and planted the first dozen trees.

He figured camellias--which grow best in the shade--would thrive in the natural oak forest, and he was right.

By 1941 it was estimated that 600,000 camellia plants were grown at Descanso Gardens, known then as Rancho del Descanso.

"Camellias look great 12 months a year," Thibault said. "And they give you great flowers at times when most flowers aren't blooming, like dead winter."

Maintenance is also relatively easy, which is why camellias are growing in popularity.

"They're very forgiving plants," Thibault said. "They like organic matter, don't dry them out in summer, and that's it."

Pretty simple, considering the festive flowers they produce during a time considered to be the flowering off-season.


Camellia walk at 1 p.m. Sunday at Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Canada Flintridge. Docent-led tour through the 35-acre camellia forest is free with $5 admission to the gardens. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. (818) 952-4400 or 952-4401.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World