There's nothing shy about spring in Descanso Gardens, that unexpected Eden tucked into the stony foothills of La Cañada Flintridge. Visit now and every inch of its 150 acres appears to be in bloom. From the small, spare flowers of the strawberry plants that hug the ground in the edible garden, to the showy swaths of azaleas and crab apples and camellias, the place is ablaze with color.
Oaks and sycamores tower over the paths, a leafy canopy filled with birds. Bees hum. Dragonflies hover. Words like "wreathed" and "enrobed" and "dappled" roll through your brain, clichés, it's true yet apt. Visitors move slowly, gaze about, look up, look down, look to one another, amazed.
It's in the lilac garden, though, where 400 bushes seem to glow in the sunlight, that the transformation is complete. Groups disperse. Conversations stop. Words give way to sighs, and just like that, patrons become pilgrims. They wander among the bushes, which bloom in shades of pink and purple and white. They lean in for a closer look and inhale the heady fragrance.
"Lilacs mean spring," said Gerri Alexander of Northridge. Born and raised in the Midwest, she makes an annual pilgrimage to La Cañada Flintridge to get a taste — make that scent — of home.
"I spent a lot of years in California being lilac-deprived," Alexander said. "Until I discovered the lilac garden here at Descanso Gardens, that is. Now I'm here every spring."
Lilacs have a firm place in American history, according to the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, which boasts one of the oldest and largest collections in the nation. Thomas Jefferson described his planting methods of the hardy bush in 1767. In 1785, George Washington wrote about adding lilacs to his garden.
That this hardy northern plant would have a place in the mild climate of California is a horticultural surprise. In order to produce their spectacular blooms, lilacs require a period of dormancy induced by freezing temperatures. But since cold winters are a feature Southern California so proudly lacks, transplanted Easterners and Midwesterners were long forced to do without.
In the 1940s, however, E. Manchester Boddy, a newspaper editor and the founder of the Descanso Gardens, was determined to fill the void. Boddy hired a UCLA biologist with a specialty in hybridization to start a breeding program at the gardens. By 1966, a dozen warm weather varieties of lilacs, including the now-famous Lavender Lady, were growing in the garden.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Descanso's lilacs suffered a period of neglect. By 1983, when the National Arboretum asked for samples of the plants, only 10 of the recorded species could be found. It wasn't until a decade later, when a group of volunteers began studying how to resuscitate and care for lilacs, that the Descanso's collection was rescued.
The group tore out ivy and cleared weeds, trimmed trees and created pathways. They culled diseased plants and installed irrigation. They combed private gardens and public nurseries throughout the country in search of even more varieties that would thrive in our mild winters. Today, more than 250 types of lilacs call the Descanso Gardens home.
Bonnie Compeau of Montrose and Joyce Kjarsgaard of Glendale are among the volunteers who help maintain the lilac garden. On a recent day, both dressed in lilac-colored shirts (an accident, they insisted), they walked among their charges, deadheading spent flowers and answering visitors' questions.
"Lilacs mean home to so many people who aren't from here," Compeau said. "They've gone through that horrible winter and then, all of a sudden, these blooms."
Neither Compeau nor Kjarsgaard, who have tended the garden for more than 10 years, are willing to admit Southern California's hybridized lilacs are, perhaps, not quite as fragrant as their cold-weather cousins.
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, exactly," Kjarsgaard said.
Though the Descanso's lilacs grow in the plant's known range of seven colors, from pure white to a deep, ringing purple, the scent is not very strong. Breathe in and there it is, a bit faint, a bit fragile, like the memory of a memory. For something as unlikely as lilacs in Southern California, though, perhaps that's exactly right.