You need some tranquility. Your kids need to let off steam. This is a good time to visit one of Southern California’s spectacular public gardens, where you all can get exactly what you need. Many of these gorgeous public spaces were originally the private estates of the region’s wealthiest individuals. It is our good fortune that so many of them decided to share their personal Edens with the world. Here are three of the best.
Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Road
San Marino, CA 91108
One of our oldest public gardens, this is the former estate of Henry E. Huntington, whose uncle Collis was one of the founders of the Southern Pacific Railroad. In a soapy twist to the Huntington saga, Henry married his uncle’s widow Arabella in 1913 and moved her into the home which now serves as the complex’s main art gallery. They were the same age and had a passion for collecting rare books and art.
Henry left his own mark on the region by building a rail system in Los Angeles (the legendary “Red Cars”) and developing Huntington Beach.
The property is home to the Huntingtons’ priceless collections of art and rare books…but you’ll probably want to save those for another visit, because you may not want to leave the 14 themed gardens.
Get your Zen on in the Japanese Garden, snack on dim sum in the new Chinese Garden, and be amazed at the 5,000 different species of succulents on display in the Desert Garden. Best of all, the Huntington has a garden and interactive educational programs designed just for kids.
Admission to the Huntington is on the pricey side ($15-20 for adults), but they open to the public for free on the first Thursday of every month. The only catch is you have to have a ticket… and those get snapped up quickly. The next available free day is October 7; tickets go on sale September 1 at 9:00 a.m.
1418 Descanso Drive
La Canada-Flintridge, CA 91011
This 155-acre property was part of the area’s original Spanish land grant to Jose Maria Verdugo (whose name lives on in these parts). It was purchased in 1937 by Los Angeles newspaper mogul E. Manchester Boddy.
Boddy built himself a 22-room mansion and named his estate Rancho del Descanso (“ranch of rest”). Then he set about cultivating plants he found interesting: including camellias, snapdragons, avocados and roses. Today, the garden boasts the largest collection of camellias in North America.
In 1950, Boddy opened his garden to the public. Admission was free at first, but both his health and his fortune were failing. He ended up leasing the property to Los Angeles County, eventually selling it to the Parks and Recreation Department. The park is managed by the Descanso Gardens Guild, a non-profit organization that was formed to maintain the garden and keep it intact.
Highlights for kids are the Enchanted Railroad, a 1/8th replica of a diesel train that they can ride through a small portion of the garden. Also be sure to check out the Bird Observation station, Full Moon tea house, and tour of Boddy’s mansion. Children’s Activities in September include “Toddler Treks,” “Budding Botanists,” “Seed Mosaics.”
General admission to Descanso Gardens is $8, $6 for Seniors and Students and $3 for children aged 5-12. Under five years old is free.
LA Arboretum and Botanic Garden
301 North Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA 91007
Here is another Los Angeles County Park that originated as a wealthy family’s estate. The 127-acre Arboretum has a colorful history: once known as Rancho Santa Anita, it changed hands several times before it was purchased by Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin.
Baldwin earned his nickname for his good fortune in mining and business. He was the man behind the Santa Anita racetrack (which is located just across from the Arboretum). Today his name lives on in local landmarks like Baldwin Hills, Baldwin Park and the racetrack’s Baldwin Stakes.
Apparently, “Lucky” was not so lucky in love. His Wikipedia entry states that he married four times (with three marriages ending in divorce). The Arboretum’s most famous structure, the Queen Anne Cottage, was built in 1884 for his fourth wife, 16-year-old Lillie. They separated in 1885. You may recognize the house from the opening credits of the 1970’s series “Fantasy Island.”
The estate remained in the family until the 1936, when Baldwin’s daughter Anita sold 1300 acres to Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler. A foundation to develop the property into an arboretum was established in 1948. Today, the Arboretum features several world themed plant collections, including many rare and endangered species. It is also an animal sanctuary, with 232 different bird species sighted there.
But its events and programs may be its most interesting offerings. For example, former Los Angeles Times Food and Wine editor Charles Perry will be speaking on the history of winemaking in the San Gabriel Valley (which is not currently known as a oenophile’s paradise).
Of course, this is not the sort of event that would interest your children. They’ll have a lot more fun with the Arboretum’s regularly scheduled kids and family events, These include story times, Kids Art classes and Arboretum Adventures. On September 11, you can take them to the Carnivorous Plant Attack! Which sounds so cool, even you’ll enjoy it.
- Donna Schwartz Mills is the creator of SoCalMom.