A bloomin' good time at Descanso's Camellia Festival

The usually bucolic Descanso Gardens underwent a spell Saturday, transforming into a one-day wonderland of children’s laughter, trains, damask fairy wings and rich, exotic teas. But through it all, the reason for the gathering was not forgotten, as thousands of white, pink and red blossoms took center stage at the garden’s annual Camellia Festival.

More than 200 varieties of the sturdy winter plant were on display throughout the 160-acre garden, and those who took part in the walking tour and lecture had a chance to learn the history of how the flowering trees and shrubs came to reside there, and to see up close new hybridizations. For camellia lovers and friends Christina Wilson and Linda Rector, who traveled from Thousand Oaks, the festival was a day well spent.

“Last year, we came the weekend after and we missed the festival,” Rector said. “We both got camellia bushes and they’re coming out really well. So now we’re back.”

This year’s weather is much more agreeable, Wilson said, recalling that last year they’d suffered much colder temperatures and had even seen tiny flakes of snow. “I was taking a lot of pictures, and my fingers were numb,” Wilson said.

In keeping with Descanso’s quest to make nature appreciation a family event, there were loads of activities Saturday that were designed for future gardeners, including an interactive tour of camellia-strewn paths led by costumed fairy princesses from the Los Angeles nonprofit Faery Trail Theater. Girls were able to strap on colorful fairy wings, while boys turned up dressed as pirates and other fantastic characters.

Before each fairy tour, the children pledged not to pick any of the flowers from the trees or bushes, making a pact with the princess: “As summer turns to fall, and winter turns to spring, I will keep my promise — I swear it, on my wing.”

Meanwhile, older visitors were treated to a free walking tour of the Camellia Forest led by camellia horticulturalist Wayne Walker, who pointed out unique varieties and hybridizations along the way. He stopped occasionally to point his long walking stick at plants of interest, including a grove of pink-blossomed bushes that had been specially bred to produce a scent. This is uncommon for camellias, which usually carry no scent, he explained as visitors stopped to inhale the delicate and dusky sweet smell of the petals.

Walker led a group to a rare yellow camellia, a new arrival from China, and talked about an English breeding technique that added a noticeable blue hue to some pink varieties.

“It’s unbelievable, some of the flower forms that are coming out of these crossed now,” he told the group, as people paused to snap blossoms with their cameras and phones.

Back at Center Circle near the garden’s entrance, West Hollywood mom Gabriella Leone was engaged in a tea tasting, hosted by Pasadena’s Chado Tea Room, with her 5-year-old daughter Aliana Rosenthal. The small brunet girl wore an aquamarine dress and blue fairy wings. “I’m a water fairy,” she explained.

Leone hadn’t been to the garden since she was a girl herself and was glad to have picked the day of the festival for a return. “It’s beautiful,” she said, looking around at the sunlit grounds. “I came for the fairies, but I love the camellias.”

Aliana agreed. “My favorite part was picking camellias — from the ground,” she clarified, indicating the pockets of her cotton dress, which each contained a fluffy pink flower head. This fairy knew the importance of keeping a pact.


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