First published in the April 7 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
A new spring has sprung at Descanso Gardens, one of Southern California’s most beloved public gardens, in more ways than one.
With the “bloom boom” underway, azaleas, camellias, irises, lilacs and much more are beckoning just in time for the post-pandemic reawakening. Lively patrons happily flow into the gardens’ welcoming entrance, quickly dispersing throughout the 80 acres of manicured gardens, wetlands and groomed and wild landscapes.
Some patrons may have just discovered the gardens, perhaps because the urban park was one of only a handful of outdoor places to roam freely during the COVID-19 restrictions, while others are returning to their favorite paradise in the foothills.
Descanso Gardens Executive Director Juliann Rooke welcomes them all, wherever their enthusiasm lies, especially given the dilemma she faced just two years ago, when coronavirus safety protocols decreed that it was safest to close the gardens for two months.
“The day we closed in March, there were 30,000 tulips at the peak of their bloom … it was really tough to walk through the garden because we are first and foremost a garden for the public,” Rooke recalled. “It was very emotional to be in here when no one else could be here to see this beauty.”
Though the gardens closed only from March to May, when they reopened, it was to a new body of patronage: During the nearly 18 months of pandemic life, membership nearly doubled to about 32,000 membership households from 18,000 in 2020.
This feat is just one of Rooke’s more recent accomplishments since her leadership tenure kicked off in 2017, one she credits to previous and purposeful planning and to the “silver lining” of the pandemic.
“I feel like post-pandemic, everybody understands now the importance of public open spaces — we have really come to understand why being in nature is so important to your health and well-being,” she noted. “But before all this, I would try to think of creative ways to tell the story of why it is important to be out in nature.”
Having joined Descanso in 2008 as a CFO and later working as COO, Rooke already brought creative thinking to her post as executive director, with increasing membership at the forefront of her goals. One of those inroads was the launching of special events, such as “Enchanted: Forest of Light,” a night light show spectacular running from November through the beginning of January, which has since grown into a holiday must-see event across greater Los Angeles County. That and the fall-focused themed “Carved” event has steadily boosted interest.
“Sometimes people don’t see themselves in a garden, but they do see themselves at an event… so we were able to steadily increase membership because people come to the nighttime event as their first experience and then fall in love with the garden,” she said.
In preparation for launching “Enchanted,” Rooke visited public gardens across the country, learning some valuable lessons along the way. “The garden world is very collaborative, they were all so willing to share the lessons they had learned and best practices,” said Rooke, who was intent on bringing Descanso’s mission and uniqueness to the core of the special events. “We were very careful about the way we designed it, we wanted people to understand who we are as a garden and what matters to us.”
For those who might just be returning to Descanso, both subtle and notable changes await. There are the refreshed boardwalks and background paintings, cleaned out waterways and landscaping changes. During an interview, Rooke expertly walked the grounds, pointing to works in progress, works to come and works to come later. She paused to narrow her eyes at some shrubs in the distance, seemingly making a mental note.
“I do have a mental to-do list,” she said, laughing at having been caught. “It’s a never-ending process.”
A CORRECTION ON CAMELLIAS
One of the more recent changes came about at the gardens’ world-renowned collection of camellias, which has a rich history in Southern California — a history which recently garnered a “reframing” on the tails of a published study at Scripps College which shed light on the Japanese American flower growers in Los Angeles.
The gardens’ founder, landowner E. Manchester Boddy, had acquired the famed camellia collection from local Japanese growers before the families were sent to internment camps during World War II. Though popular history surmised the acquisition as being made through “a fair price,” that has now been shown to not be the case. Some of the flowers have also been renamed to reflect the original names, which had been changed.
Through Scripps College, Descanso has been working with the growers’ descendants to tell the correct history.
“It has all been very positive, as we continue to tell the story, we are engaging with the families and descendants of the nurserymen,” Rooke said. “They are so very grateful that we are doing this and gracious in telling their stories, so it’s made it very easy for us. They want to tell the stories, and we want to hear them.”
GROUNDBREAKING NEW NURSERY
Within view of the lake and on the edge of the garden, a new 2,000 square-foot green house is taking shape, built upon three tiers with spectacular views. The site was the first location of the nursery until a fire about six years ago forced it to move near the main parking lot. Since then, they discovered the old site was a better location for sun and weather.
As part of the new Master Plan, the new nursery will be large enough for plant propagation, materials storage and educational opportunities. The new site, expected to be completed by end-summer, will focus on propagation, which is part of the larger mission of land preservation, notes Rooke.
Due to a recent demise in nurseries across the state (in part, due to growers shifting flower production to marijuana), Descanso is tasked with preserving their historic flower and cherry tree reserves, sharing them with other public gardens across the country.
“We knew we were going to have to be more self-sufficient to preserve our collections… we will never make money doing it, but do we have a responsibility to propagate things that are important? Yes,” said Rooke, also highlighting other conservation efforts. “Sometimes doing the right thing is not necessarily going to make you money.”
Rooke has been a staunch supporter in Descanso’s water conservation plan, whether it’s consolidating collections to reduce water usage, collecting water out of the wash to reuse it, streamlining irrigation, or the wastewater treatment plant located on the grounds.
“Water conservation is the common thread through everything we are doing now… How could it not be?” she asked.
This month, Descanso Gardens is unveiling a new art exhibit, called “Your (Un)Natural Garden,” to celebrate the full reopening of the Boddy House and Sturt Haaga Gallery. For more information, visit descansogardens.org.