On She Goes

Flora in the City: Guide to the Gardens of Los Angeles

Perfect sites to clear your mind on a nice Southern California day.

D.S. White
D.S. White
August 14, 2017
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Visitors to Los Angeles can be surprised by the flora of the city. In spring, electric lavender jacarandas bloom alongside large, creamy magnolias; in summer, sweet jessamine scents the air; and fall and winter carpet the hillsides in green while much of the United States is covered in snow. If you’re looking for a bit of a respite from all of the tourist-packed destinations, these outdoor spaces are the place to be for some LA-style relaxation. From sprawling botanical gardens to community projects started by a single person, these are perfect sites to clear your mind on a nice Southern California day. Dozens of public gardens show off the horticulture and history of LA; here are five to add to your itinerary.

Rose Hills Foundation Garden Court
photo by Tim Street-Porter

The Huntington
1151 Oxford Rd, San Marino

Originally a home for railroad tycoon Henry Huntington and his wife, Arabella, this turn-of-the-century Beaux-Arts mansion and its grounds recall a wild, lavish era of Los Angeles that was more There Will Be Blood than La La Land. Visitors can roam 120 rolling acres of botanical gardens that are divided into 16 distinct areas, from wide-ranging (the Garden of Flowing Fragrance showcases the unfolding botanical variety of a Chinese-style scholarly garden) to intensely specific (the fragrant herb garden features only, well, herbs). The throwback opulence is on full display in the conservatory, a two-level, 16,000-square-foot steel-and-glass replica of the property’s original lath house that is an excellent place to imagine yourself as the protagonist of a British cozy mystery, searching out clues to the true identity of a rogue murderer. The conservatory houses a lush collection of tropical plants, including the popular carnivorous Amorphophallus titanum, or “corpse flower,” so nicknamed because of the odor of rotting flesh it releases when it blooms (about twice a decade since 1999). If you aren’t terribly into fetid meat, don’t worry—the corpse flower has no odor when not in bloom.

Ron Finley HQ
photo by D.S. White

Ron Finley’s Urban Garden HQ
Exposition Blvd at Chesapeake Ave

Ron Finley’s South LA home sits at the foot of Baldwin Hills, one of the wealthiest majority-Black neighborhoods in the United States. But local residents still find themselves in a bit of a food desert. Tired of trekking miles away for fresh, organic produce, Finley decided to grow his own: first converting the strip of grass between his sidewalk and the curb, and then his entire backyard, into a working garden. These efforts garnered community praise—and a citation for unpermitted gardening. After Finley fought city hall and won, he garnered the nickname of “Gangsta Gardener” and started a movement to get more urban residents growing their own food (you may have seen his TED Talk). To help raise funds for his network of urban gardeners, Finley hosts all-day experiences through Airbnb, including a guided bike tour of his neighborhood, a couple of hours learning and working in the garden (now christened “HQ”), and an evening enjoying an alfresco garden-to-table dinner.  

Los Angeles Zoo
photo by Tad Motoyama

Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens
5333 Zoo Dr, Los Angeles

Its sister zoo farther south in San Diego gets most of the shine, but the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Griffith Park is noteworthy not only for its animal preservation programs, but for its commitment to plant conservation. The zoo’s botanical gardens include over 800 international plant species and 7,000 individual plants, arranged throughout the park in clusters that reflect their natural habitats. For example, you’ll not only find eucalyptus trees inside the koala habitat, but planted throughout the entire Australia section—and yet, if you just cross to the other side of the pathway to see the western lowland gorillas, you’ll find yourself surrounded by the type of lush, swampy foliage typical of their natural tropical and subtropical habitats. One of only 62 USDA-certified plant rescue centers in the nation qualified to house and care for exotic or rare plants confiscated from smugglers, the zoo’s botanical collection immerses visitors and zoo animals in a shared natural atmosphere, creating a potential bridge to understanding and appreciation of the majestic species on display. Pro tip: try to visit during LA’s (slightly) wet season. Crowds are smaller, the flora is lusher, and you might see the fauna come out to play in the rain!

Amir’s Garden
photo by JuanCarlos Chan / Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Park

Amir’s Garden
Above the Mineral Wells picnic area off Griffith Park Dr

Still in Griffith Park but a world away from the bustling Los Angeles Zoo, there’s a shaded garden atop a hiking trail that Angelenos owe to the imagination of one man: Iranian immigrant Amir Dialameh. After a 1971 wildfire burned away the vegetation on his favorite hiking trail, Dialameh got the city’s permission to restore it—with a catch: Dialameh had to do all the work himself, without city assistance or funding. With a crew of like-minded volunteers and park enthusiasts, Dialameh turned the charred hillside into a microcosm of LA plant life. Today, oleander and rose bushes sit under jacaranda trees while hot pink bougainvillea arches over the perimeter. Officially designated Amir’s Garden by the city in 1983, the grove is still maintained by a network of volunteers who are always happy to have more help. But don’t fret if you don’t have the time (or inclination)—there’s no work requirement to walk up the short-but-steep hill that prepares you for a lovely, peaceful rest under the shade.

Storrier Stearns Japanese Gardens
photo by Deanie Nyman

Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden
270 Arlington Dr, Pasadena

When Charles and Ellamae Storrier Stearns renovated their estate grounds in 1935, they spared no expense: they hired landscape architect Kinzuchi Fujii and gave him the budget to re-create, to his exacting specifications, an Edo period “stroll garden” among the orange groves of Pasadena. A skilled craftsman in Japan before he immigrated to the US, Fujii applied his superior knowledge of Japanese design principles to the two-acre project, including designing an authentic teahouse and 25-foot hill with a cascading waterfall. Fujii considered the garden to be his masterwork, but he would never see it completed. In 1942, the final year of the project, he was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forcibly relocated to World War II internment camps. In 2005, the current owners of the estate collaborated with Fujii’s son (also a landscape architect) on a comprehensive restoration. Today, the garden is on the California Register of Historic Resources and, as the street the Storrier Stearns mansion was built on remained residential through decades of development, Fujii’s masterwork is a perfect location to spend a late afternoon in quiet contemplation. And if you’re lucky, you may spot Shiro, the fluffy white cat who has adopted the garden as his own.