BG-Map Feature Article

Descanso Gardens
Mapping and Conservation Project

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| History | Collections | Mapping Project

Text Box: Editorís Note:
In July, 2001, Yongchan Park tragically died in a swimming accident.
By Tim Thibault

History of Descanso Gardens

Descanso Gardens, a 150-acre display garden in La CaŮada Flintridge, California, is the former estate of local newspaper publisher E. Manchester Boddy. Boddy purchased the then "Rancho del Descanso" in 1936. He envisioned the site as a working landscape, and operated a cut flower camellia plantation, a commercial nursery, and, briefly, a public garden. At the same time, it was Boddy's "ranch home", complete with cow pasture, chicken coop, hunting ground, fishing hole, orchard, vegetable and pleasure gardens.

Boddy sold the land to the County of Los Angeles late in 1953. The County still owns the land. The non-profit Descanso Gardens Guild has managed the grounds under contract since 1993.

Descanso Gardens - The Lawn
Descanso Gardens - Education



The 60 acres that are landscaped and open to the public
contain five major collections, several of which have
historic as well as botanical significance:

Boddy initiated three of these collections - camellias, lilacs and roses.



Boddy began planting camellias soon after purchasing the land. He concentrated on the japonica cultivars popular as corsages. After a slow start, the largest single development of the collection came in 1942, when Boddy purchased the entire stock of a nursery whose Japanese-American owner was being sent to the World War II internment camps. Descanso Gardens received some 100,000 these camellias. They included a mix of the owner's personal collection of Japanese introductions, seedlings under evaluation, and the important Camellia japonica cultivars of the day. Boddy introduced to the trade some plants from this purchase, including the seedling Camellia japonica 'Berenice Boddy', named for his wife. Even though Boddy removed half of the plants when he sold the land to Los Angeles County, this single purchase remains the foundation of the collection today.

The next major development in the camellia collection came in 1948. Descanso Gardens was the first facility in a century to import cultivars of the very large flowered Camellia reticulata from the Yunnan province of China. Fifteen of the 20 imported cultivars were successfully established. Virtually all reticulata cultivars and hybrids available in the West today trace their lineage to these introductions.

The following year a hybridization program was initiated. Several breeding objectives were set out including expansion of the bloom season, color palette, increased bloom intensity, cold hardy flowers, and maintaining the flower size of Camellia reticulata on a more compact plant. This program led to the establishment of a camellia species collection. This collection is currently being refurbished in cooperation with other institutions. Descanso currently boasts the largest camellia species collection in North America.

Camellia Japonica 'Berenice Boddy'

Camellia Japonica 'Berenice Boddy'

The public garden era at Descanso Gardens has produced the most taxa in the collection. New cultivars primarily of Camellia japonica were introduced from nurseries in the southeastern US in the early and mid 1950s. And a generous donation in the early 1960s enabled the garden to purchase new introductions for the period of roughly 1962-1967.

Camellia granthamiana

Camellia granthamiana

The last three years have been another period of active collection development. Descanso Gardens declared 1997 the "Year of the Camellia Forest." This garden-wide effort created staffing specifically for the Camellia Forest and led to the botanical and horticultural rejuvenation of the collection. This in turn has led to updating the collection with emphasis on camellia species, reticulatas, saluenensis hybrids, award winning miniatures and other new introductions. The "Year of the Camellia Forest" also allowed the garden to begin the process of organizing this complex collection into a series of orderly sub-collections.



The "International Rosarium", home of our rose and iris collections, also went through a recent renovation and reorganization. Originally designed and established by rose breeder Walter Lammerts shortly after he came to the gardens in the late 1940s, the Rosarium is laid out to show the history of the development of the modern garden rose. This is a curious design for a private estate, suggesting that the idea of opening Descanso as a public garden may have been conceived earlier than previously thought. Nonetheless, the Rosarium was completely renovated on this theme, reopening in 1994. Species roses from Europe, Asia and North America border the Rosarium. The collection then proceeds from east to west showing classes of roses arranged by chronological development. The western end of the International Rosarium features modern roses arranged by the country of the hybridizer. Vignettes and companion plantings enhance the display value.


Walter Lammerts also developed the Descanso lilac collection. Lammerts sought to breed lilacs for southern California where a lack of winter chilling can be a problem. Lammerts produced several hybrids of Syringa X hyacinthiflora that are reliable performers for the area. His introductions along with the later introductions from Descanso horticulturist John Sobeck form the basis of the current collection. These plants are supplemented by cultivars of Syringa vulgaris that perform well in warm climates. The vulgaris cultivars are selected to show the diversity of flower color and form classes recognized by International Register of Cultivar Names in the Genus Syringa L. (Oleaceae).


The iris garden is currently under renovation. The theme will be similar to the rose collection, showing the development of the modern garden iris. A complete collection of Dykes Medal winners arranged chronologically will be the main feature.

California Native Plants

The California native plant garden, on the site of Boddy's wildflower cutting garden, was developed shortly after the garden was sold to the County of Los Angeles in 1953. It was reestablished in 1959 by British plantsman Theodore Payne. Payne sought to create interest in native plants in California landscapes. He created collections based on taxonomy and plant communities.

The most important taxonomic collection is the genus Quercus. All California native species are represented. Other genera with taxonomic collections include Arctostaphylos, Salvia, Pinus and Cercis. The Cercis collection is unique in that it includes non-native species, providing the opportunity to compare the California native C. occidentalis to its close relatives.

The plant community collections are Riparian Woodland, Desert Oasis, Redwood Forest and Chaparral. Descanso Gardens is situated the Verdugo Hills and includes 90 acres of undeveloped chaparral in addition to the defined native plant garden. An area designated "showy natives" rounds out the collection and provides display value for public interest.


The Mapping and Conservation Project

In May 2000, Descanso Gardens received a federal Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS) grant. The funds will enable us to map the plant locations, conserve declining accessions, and verify plant identities in our historic collections. BG-Map and Garden Notepad are essential tools for accomplishing the first two objectives. The project is proceeding in three phases with the first two complete.

Phase I saw the development of a base map for the garden. Main control points were set via high accuracy GPS equipment for use in aerial photogrammetry and later for ground surveying. The surveyors also established a network of control points on paved surfaces. A base map was produced in AutoCAD format on the California State Coordinate System.

Tim Thibault uses a metal detector to locate a control point.

Tim Thibault uses a metal detector
to locate a control point.

Phase II saw the enhancement of the base map and purchase of the technical instruments to carry the project to completion. Approximately a quarter of the land, including nearly all the area open to the public has dense evergreen tree cover. The obscured areas on the base map were filled in using information from the1954 maps of the grounds produced by survey teams from the County of Los Angeles. The technical instruments include computer and survey equipment. A new 600 MHz Pentium III computer system was purchased on which AutoCAD 2000 and BG-Map were installed. Field survey instruments include a Topcon GTS-213 and an HP 200lx with Garden Notepad preloaded serving as data collector.

We are currently in Phase III, the active mapping of plant locations. While in the field mapping the plants, we also note their size and condition, check their identification if possible, and make recommendations on plant care, propagation and conservation. To date approximately 15% of our accessioned plants have been mapped, including virtually all of the lilacs. We are currently mapping the camellias during their winter bloom season before moving on to the California native plants and roses in turn. The dense camellias, many of them at a great distance from a control point, offer unique challenges for mapping. We estimate that we will have most of our accessioned plants mapped by May 2002.

Outside experts will also come in during Phase III to verify the taxonomy of our collections. Already there have been successes in identification, plant care and conservation. Staff have successfully identified or corrected a mistaken identification for many plants. With camellias this presents a particular challenge. Certain cultivars sport readily. The presence of a virus also changes a cultivar's name. As an example, a large block of Camellia vernalis 'Hiryu' had to be separated into 'Hiryu' and 'Hiryu Nishiki' when some of the plants were found to be virused.

After mapping of an area in completed, notations on plant condition go to the horticultural staff. Historic camellias have been freed from competition with vigorous seedlings and tagged for repropagation at the appropriate season.

Even though the project is still in progress, it is clear that Descanso Gardens has benefited by the increased ability to manage our historic plant collections. Further, the additions to our plant records systems, particularly Garden Notepad, will enable Descanso Gardens to be more efficient and responsive to our changing collections well after this project is history.

Yongchan Park and Tim Thibault enter mapping data collected in the field.

Yongchan Park and Tim Thibault
enter mapping data collected in the field.


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Updated December 12, 2000
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