The Dangerous and Seductive Beauty of Descanso Gardens

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With Passover, Easter and a new Pope competing in recent days for our attention, I was looking for a place to thank all our gods and muses — whoever they are and wherever they are hiding — for this beautiful world that we inhabit. The obvious choices would be to enjoy the sunset here in Santa Monica, or stroll through the museum gardens at the Getty or the Norton Simon. But I've been there and done that countless times, and now, I was looking for something new. And voilà! I thought of the Descanso Gardens, one of the botanical treasures Southern California is famous for. However, this magical site in the San Gabriel Mountains remains surprisingly under the radar.

Lilacs in bloom, Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, California
Image Edward Goldman


I have been to Descanso Gardens several times but my last visit was at least ten years ago. And so, I drove to the town of La Cañada Flintridge over the weekend and found its sprawling grounds, all 150-acres of them, in full bloom. Whatever your floral fantasy, it was there; apple and cherry trees were exploding with pink and white petals. But it was the lilac garden with its spectrum of colors — from white to lavender to deep violet — that left me dangerously intoxicated. All of a sudden, I was transported to my childhood memories of the Russian countryside, with its fields of wild lilacs blossoming in springtime. I was practically drunk on nostalgia…

Caltech Players ready to stage Rashomonin the Japanese Garden
Descanso Gardens, La Cañada Flintridge, California
Photo Edward Goldman

But there were more blossoming surprises in store. Walking across a small red bridge, I discovered the Japanese garden with its open-air theater. There were about a hundred people watching a Kabuki-style performance, with actors dressed in beautiful ceremonial costumes.

Caltech Players in Rashomon
Descanso Gardens, La Cañada Flintridge, California
Photo Edward Goldman


When I asked what was going on, I was told it was a recreation of scenes from Rashomon, the classic 1950 film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. If you haven't already, please do yourself a favor and watch this film—one of my all time favorites—with its breathtaking black and white cinematography and superb acting by Toshiro Mifune.

Stills from Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950)
Courtesy RKO Radio Pictures


One danger of spending time in Descanso Gardens is that you become slightly jaded by all its beauty. But once again I found myself awestruck, this time by two gardens growing vertically on the outside walls of a one-story building. It was the Sturt Haaga Gallery, a relatively new addition to the grounds. The building was designed by Frederick Fisher, a well-known Los Angeles architect with numerous museum projects already under his belt.

Frederick Fisher, Sturt Haag Gallery (2011)
Descanso Gardens, La Cañada Flintridge, California
Photo Edward Goldman


I was lucky to catch the last days of the exhibition "The WILD Flowers," full of paintings, installations and sculpture, all of them "fanciful and perhaps even a bit outrageous" variations on the theme of blossoming gardens. I recognized the work by some of the Southern California-based artists — among them Lisa Adams, Maura Bendett, John Millei, Roland Reiss, Raymond Saunders and Michael Todd — but a few of the names were new to me.

Exterior installation, "The WILD Flowers," Sturt Haag Gallery
Photo Robert Wedemeyer, Courtesy Descanso Gardens


Driving back home, I was thinking about one of the most famous gardens in the world — Claude Monet's gardens at Giverny, where the artist lived and worked for most of his late life. I wonder what might happen if some young artists were invited to stay here in the Descanso Gardens for a few weeks as artists-in-residence. There is no doubt in my mind that all this blossoming would have a meaningful impact on their art practice. And who knows, someday Descanso could become as famous a name as Giverny.

Paintings by John Millei, "The WILD Flowers," Sturt Haag Gallery
Photo Edward Goldman, Courtesy Descanso Gardens

Banner image: Lilacs in bloom at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, California. Photo Edward Goldman