Grant helps Descanso Gardens go native

Descanso Gardens will grow next year by planting a four-acre native oak woodland on land that hasn't been open to the public for decades.

For an institution that has thrived on cultivating camellias, roses and other exotic flora, recreating a landscape indigenous to Southern California but decimated by a century of growth and development is a new adventure.

"When there were not a lot of humans and a lot of nature, we used to bring in the exotic. And now that there's a lot of humans and not a lot of nature, we're placing more emphasis on indigenous habitats," Descanso Gardens Executive Director David Brown said. "It represents the inclusion of conservation in our mission, of demonstrating good stewardship through sustainable practices."

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a $720,000 grant for planting several native oak species accompanied by indigenous shrubs, grasses, ferns and wildflowers on land southwest of the garden's entrance, adjacent to the rose garden and alongside a man-made lake.

But first the remnants of non-native eucalyptus trees planted by county workers 30 years ago and a multitude of invasive weeds that have colonized the area at local species' expense have to go.

Many of the eucalyptus, which burn quickly during wildfires, were removed last year, with sprouts given to the Los Angeles Zoo to feed pandas. The conversion is set to start in earnest next week and will include a "solarization" process that employs tarps to heat up bare ground and kill off weed seeds, said Rachel Young, Descanso's director of horticulture and garden operations.

Planting of young oaks will begin in February to allow a public opening in late spring, Young said.

Pathways will wrap around the largest of several existing century-old oaks, circle around the lake — currently seen by visitors only from a distant bird observation post — and lead visitors past a historic lodge that was built by former landowner E. Manchester Boddy and featured in a recent episode of "Mad Men."

Along the way, said garden Chief Operating Officer Juliann Rooke, educational installations will explain aspects of the habitat and urge visitors to look for signs of the woodpeckers, quail, various small birds, deer and even bobcats that may call it home.

While the new woodland represents a bit of departure from Descanso's usual fare, the garden will continue to cultivate plants from around the world in its other spaces.

Young said irrigation required to maintain the signature camellia grows beneath other oaks throughout the garden could ultimately impact the health of those trees, making space dedicated specifically to oaks even more important for the garden's distant future.

"We want to make sure there will always be oaks at Descanso Gardens," Rooke said.


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